Glass shattered and buckshot blew through the front door from outside.
“Son of a—” I crouched lower, and yanked open the fridge door. I tucked my body low. The shelving dug into my back. A shotgun is not my first choice when it comes to methods of redecoration. I’m generally a woman of greater subtlety. Unfortunately, my gentleman caller had not asked before opening fire.
Cowering behind the open door of an ancient refrigeration device is not my idea of a time well spent either.
In the absence of a cup of tea, quiet, and a good book, I suppose there are worse things. I enjoy the benefits of not being loaded with buckshot.
Shotgun blasts shredded the flimsy wooden door that led to the front garden. Bits of red-painted wood chips littered the time worn, dully-polished entryway flooring, the long boards mauled in places from an earlier altercation. Long furrows, left by sharp claws, dug trenches into the wood far deeper than a buff or refinish could sort out.
One paints a door red to attract good fortune. Foolproof? Clearly not.
The late September evening was oppressive with high humidity and a temperature holding strong in the 90s. Even two rooms from the ventilated door, I could feel the flat’s temperature rising. I waited for a beat.
No more blasts issued from outside.
I peeked around my impromptu barricade, strands of my own hair stuck to my cheek by a demure smear of drying blood, and looked across to the corridor. The floor was peppered with debris, the remains of a glass sugar jar rendered into razor edged confetti, but it was otherwise clear. I slid out from behind the hinged door, leaving it open—the curry leftovers from last night’s takeaway would have to fend for themselves against tonight’s thick heat.
I tipped my head to listen, concentrating on the sounds from outside, but booming explosions from nearby River Street obscured anything significant. Weekly pyrotechnic displays were the perfect cover for shotgun fire. Well played, Nathan.
My roommate, Nathan, was an honorable man, but certainly not a patient one. He was a hunter, a man of certain principles, and a man with many weapons. Our relationship had never been what one might call complicated, but that all changed earlier this week.
When I experienced my first shapeshift, barely two days ago, neither of us was prepared. I may have… accidentally bitten off his hand. Waving a hand in the face of a confused wolf is always a bad idea. Werewolf 101. Even I knew that. He was taking it a bit hard. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days. I certainly didn’t expect our reunion to involve gunplay.
The scent of gunpowder hung heavy in the air, and it burned all the way down to my lungs, clogging my senses. A car rolled by outside, a honk of the horn blasted a short, distinctive bar from “Dixie.” I could not smell Nathan. I could not see him. The shrill ringing of the Confederate horn plugged my ears; for a moment, I could not hear him.
Macaroni crunched softly under the soles of my shoes.
Fireworks boomed from three blocks away, and the sulfurous scent only thickened, coaxed along by a breeze from the river. Perhaps he’d lost interest. Perhaps he’d run out of ammunition. Perhaps—.
Our disagreements were not the disagreements of other people.
I took off so fast, my body dented the far wall. I barely felt it. Five, six, seven steps to the open bedroom door. I flung myself in under the bundle of rue hung over the threshold. Two things happened at once. My left ankle gave way, and a shotgun blast whizzed by, inches from my skin, so close I could smell the pellets. It struck me, a heartbeat later, that they weren’t silver. At least he wasn’t trying to kill me outright.
I lay on the floor for a beat, the report of the shotgun still ringing in my ears, and waited for my ankle ligaments to re-align themselves. There are arguable benefits to a life of lycanthropy, despite the excessive number of lint rollers necessary for the morning after. I kicked off my shoes. Just because your body is up to supernatural speed, strength, and instant course corrections, it does not then follow your footwear is.
I’d liked those shoes. Nathan was beginning to try my patience.
Ah, there. As the dull ache in my ankle faded, I shoved off of the floor, and rose, kicking off my superfluous shoe as I went. It slammed into a delicate bell jar containing a crystalline statuette of a butterfly-winged fairy.
That was one of a kind.
“NATHAN!” I rarely bellow, but the occasion called for it.
I reached under the frilly lace of the runner of bedclothes, and pulled out a cricket bat—a reinforced cricket bat. A cricket bat that was bespelled not to break on the thick skulls of young men who do not appreciate the difficulty in acquiring an abode, within the bounds of Savannah’s Historic District, that had both a walk in closet, library space, and central air.
The front window shattered, raining sharp shards across the hardwood floors, couch, and a few trash novels left littering the cushions. When the projectile impacted the boards, it, too, shattered, spouting a bright sea of flame. Molotov cocktail chucked from the front garden.
A bumpy patch in our relationship. Right.
Fire. In my home. My books! BALLS.
My grandmother’s 18th century book collection was in there—and all of my trash novels. The first editions!
Could I forgive Nathan his flame-licked transgression? Given the glass encrusted, rapidly charring givens, I found myself leaning toward a definite possibly not.
A thud and a crunch from down the hall alerted me to the forward momentum of my pursuer. He’d crossed the threshold, and the trip down the corridor wouldn’t take him but the length of a few heartbeats.
A crash from the wrong direction snatched my attention, as it was in the room, it took priority. Had Nathan branched out and brought a friend? My stomach dropped. He was my partner.
A hunched, grey-fleshed creature launched itself in via the path of least resistance—a three paneled, five-foot glass window seat. Stained glass ornaments shattered across the floor, butterflies smashed to bits. Several crystal pendulums snapped free of their clear fishing lines, caught in the creature’s flailing limbs.
I was running out of windows.
The rotting cloth hanging from an equally aged body resembled what I recognized as 18th Century garb, give or take fifty years or so. Not flattering—particularly on a corpse. I frowned, backing up a few steps. The closest local cemetery dating back that far was less than a mile away. Everyone who died in Savannah between 1750 and July 1st, 1853 was buried there. Colonial Park Cemetery. I toured it regularly. The inhabitants were not meant to go walkabout.
The Georgia Historical Society was going to have an absolute fit.
The ghoul had once been a man. It advanced on me with no hint of will or intelligence in its cloudy, magic bloated eyes. Though aged and battered, the corpse should have looked worse. It must have fed.
I backed into bedside table. The ghoul hissed. My breath stopped.
Ghouls ran away from fire. It was the only thing that killed them for good. Half of my flat was blazing. It should have been scavenging road kill or fresh graves. Ghouls did not seek out flaming buildings or able-bodied people in their prime, not to mention an able bodied werewolf armed with a cricket bat. Not unless they were compelled.
Attack the hunters when they’re trying to kill each other.
Thanks very much.
The creature lunged; I advanced in the opposite direction.
Though fast, ghouls aren’t particularly spry, and this one missed its grapple, staggered through the place I’d stood a moment before, knocking a stack of trash novels from the bedside table. Somewhere between the shock of realization and dodging, I’d lost my cricket bat. I’d been the primary researcher of our evil fighting duo. Disarmament happened on occasion. There’s a little damsel in me yet.
My favorite enamel-on-porcelain teacup lost the battle with Newton’s third law, courtesy of a falling book; it experienced the short-lived joy of free fall, and met a messy end when it kissed the hardwood floor below.
“First the windows and now the china?” The fire of my anger was fanned anew.
I lunged for the boxes stacked up on my wardrobe. There they’d sat for months, awaiting thank-you notes for my friends and family in Windsor and Bedford. Most of the packages were still wrapped in brown paper, with par avion stickers affixed, postmarks recording their trip across the Pond to the Colonies—er—US. I’d spent those months researching the area, delving headlong into Savannah’s extensive history and lore. It was fascinating reading. I hadn’t had a chance to address the pile of post.
I ripped open the nearest unwrapped box, fumbled the contents onto the floor, and took hold of the most convenient component.
Nathan once told me that nothing takes the shine off a man’s day like a thermal carafe to the face. Quite so. When I whacked the ghoul, there was a thud-crunch. I think it was his zygomatic process, but one has little time to be anatomically exacting when fighting for one’s life; that is to say I broke its face. I pulled back, cracked it again, and hit it so hard the plastic handle snapped off in my hand.
Black goo bubbled from its ruined nose, and the blasted thing leapt at me.
And then I growled.
Still getting used to the werewolf thing—sometimes the girly sounds happen.
It was the growl that got its attention. A busted, leathery upper lip pulled back from sharp, shark-like rows of razor teeth. I noted some of the tissue on its face filling out slightly. Indeed, it had fed—and quite recently, too. Its eyes flashed with reflected light, and a most unholy stench rolled out of its mouth. I could taste the smell on the back of my tongue, and heavy scent of it stuck to my throat. It was like choking down meat that had been rotting for a week in the midday August sun. Only less pleasant.
Its clawed fingers dug into my arm just above the elbow.
My stomach rolled with revulsion, and I nearly lost the blueberry pancakes I’d eaten for lunch. Nathan chose that moment to step in, swinging my discarded cricket bat with admirable ferocity.
The ghoul’s spine had second thoughts about structural integrity. Sadly, it remained attached to hunched, bony shoulders. The thing’s yellowing, over-long, fingernails ripped into my flesh as it fell back, leaving long furrows in my forearm. Unsanitary.
Blood welled. I said something I won’t repeat.
“Kill it, would you!” That came out just after, and was sharply pointed. It was the voice I used when I found something unsavory crawling across any portion of the apartment.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, woman. Can’t you go four and a half minutes without something trying to kill you?
“You were just trying to kill me.” Shrill. My voice remained shrill.
“I wasn’t. If I had been, you’d be spitting silver, not diving about like an extra from Mission Impossible eighty-four, or whatever number they’re on these days. God, how can that man still get work in thi—”
Thud. Thud. Thud.
He smashed the ghoul in the head several times, knocking it to the bedroom floor. He pulped its bones with the cricket bat, though the limbs twitched a moment after. I covered my mouth, fingers pressing against closed lips.
He gave it one more for good measure.
Streaks of green-black, rotted brain matter spattered across the floor, sliming half of my gifts, the bed skirt, three of the walls, and Nathan’s shoes. It smelled horrible. As we watched, the organ-goobers and entire body liquefied into goop, then sunk down into the floorboards.
That smell was never going to come out.
It was almost a small mercy that the fire was slowly burning down the hall toward us.
All traces were not erased, but the largest portions of corpse were obliterated. Mostly, it was just the smell that lingered.
I blinked and looked over at Nathan. He was disheveled, held a shotgun over his shoulder. He had the general appearance of someone who’d been sleeping under a park bench. He probably had. His left gripped the cricket bat still. Wait. Shotgun. Cricket bat.
“You’ve got both hands.”
“Now I have,” he replied.
“You got both hands.”
“Yes, I believe we’ve established that.” He lifted a hand, and waggled his fingers at me. “It got better.”
“But how did it—”
“The usual way.”
“You’re infected too?”
“No. Nothing like that. I’m sort of… immune to wolf spit and such.”
“It’s healed in the usual way.”
“There’s nothing usual about—y… You’re not human.”
“I am.” He protested. Then he shrugged one shoulder. “Mostly.”
“Mostly. Mostly? You’ve burnt down half of our home because I’m not human, and you’re a monster hunter, but you’re not human either.”
“You bit off my hand, Carlisle, dear. Don’t get so upset.”
“Of course I’ve a right to be upset. You’ve burnt our—”
“Technically, the ghoul did it. I chucked Molotov at him, but the cheeky bugger caught it and—” He shrugged and made a throwing gesture with one hand.
“You tossed a—and it caught it—and threw it… ghouls don’t. I. Who.”
“No time for chat, dear, find some shoes.”
I clenched my teeth and pointed toward the hallway, ostensibly the fire in the library/living area beyond. My arm shook slightly, elbow locked.
“You have flood and fire insurance. I’ve checked.”
“Yes, I’ve checked.” He nodded. “These things happen. Best to be prepared.”
You shit, I thought.
He said nothing, but his lips quirked into familiar, lopsided little smile.
The flat was in ruins—smoldering, partially flaming, shattered and shot-to-Hades ruins. I could hear the sirens starting up just a couple of blocks over.
A sudden calm washed over me like slow jazz on a busy afternoon, and I uttered a single word, a time honored word, a word no Brit can ever resist, turn down, or bypass without a practically genetic backlash. “Tea?” My blood pressure lowered a smidgen at the thought of it.
There was a pause. A very brief pause. “Tea.” Nathan agreed, with a tight nod.
He shook a bit of goo from the toe of his boot. It spattered the baseboard along the only unscathed wall.
He turned to offer a hand.
I took it. “Gryphon Tea Room?”
“It’s closed after 6pm, Carly.”
“The Tea Room?”
“5pm. I’m afraid—” He enjoyed memorizing takeaway menus.
“Oh. No. We don’t have to…” I stopped speaking with a thought almost as disturbing as the moment I realized my books were in danger.
“Yes. I think we must.” Nathan shook his head, strands of dark hair falling across his left eye. “It’s the only way.”
We stepped out into the heat of the night, using the back entrance to the flat, and took a brisk walk through the back garden gate, passed through a small alley, and headed for the corner of East Broughton and the shopping district of tourist-rich Bull Street.
The city of Savannah had a deeply rooted fear of fire—it had burned down twice in its history, the tightly packed, old wooden homes and establishments presented a perfect fuel for a domino of flame, hopping roof to roof with the ease of a superhero prancing about in a garishly drawn cartoon.
Fire trucks screamed by before we’d walked a half a block.
I did my best to put my books out of my mind.
Shadows fell heavy on Wright Square as we approached, the green patch rendered black to human eyes, with only minimal moonlight filtering in through the Spanish moss encrusted limbs of the Live Oaks along its perimeter. Moss hung like wisps of tattered cloth from the sails of a ghost ship, and swayed gently with the warm evening breeze.
The clop-clop of hooves pulling a carriage over cobblestone came to my ear, a delicate rhythm against the gentle whisper of traffic passing on busier streets. A child laughed, the ring of sound followed moments later with the faint scent of cotton candy, as the breeze passed over the child and rushed to meet us down wind. The ghost tour, loaded for bear with curious bodies, was headed out to delight and chill its passengers with tales of the most haunted city in the US. (Which is precisely what brought me here—the ghosts.)
The smell of rotting flesh and wild magic assaulted me a half second before Nathan’s hand latched onto my upper arm. I should have smelled it sooner. My senses were dulled, as was my vision, by some magic surrounding the square. When the ghoul moved, its tattered clothing hanging from its old bones like the moss from gnarled limbs above, the spell shattered. We both could see it now. It, and its companions crouched at the bases of the centuries old trees.
“This city,” Nathan muttered, cracking his knuckles.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Perhaps we should invite Uncle for holiday. He does love a good ghoul hunt after supper.”
“Woman. We’ll talk about holiday plans after we behead the lot.”
“Nathan, you’ve got to learn to multi-task.”
“Could you wolf out and give me a hand?”
“Have you any idea what’s causing this?” I glanced over.
“I made some friends when I was in South America. There may be sort of a demi-god involved.” Nathan flicked shaggy fringe from his eyes. He needed a cut. “The details are sketchy, but I do know they want me dead.”
“I simply can’t imagine you’d have that affect on someone.”
He shot me a look. I can’t speak for Nathan, but I’m pretty sure he thought something quite profane in my direction. He said nothing aloud.
“Anyway, it’s not a full moon. I’m afraid you’re on your own.” His look changed, and I sighed. “Oh, all right.” I glanced down at my lone surviving pair of shoes. “Have you got an extra weapon?”
He handed off a machete. I have no idea how he fit that under the old army surplus jacket he’d taken to wearing.
“It’s quite sharp,” he advised, in a ‘be careful’ tone.
“I believe that’s what makes these things handy.”
The machete met the first lurching swipe of ghoul-claws, but the beast was marginally more coordinated than the last I’d met tonight. It ripped the sleeve of my top, jagged nails catching in the silk blend, even as its other arm fell to the ground.
I swung the blade again, hard. It sliced through the remaining arm. Both limbs continued to twitch after they’d been relieved of a body to control them. Magic. “Die already, would you!”
There was a grunt and Nathan stepped in. He swung the shotgun like a bat. A hollow pop-crunch wrenched the ghoul’s head free of its shoulders, and it smashed into a granite boulder. The foot lamps illuminating the monument granted a beautiful view of blackish-green ghoul juice as it spattered across the memorial plaque affixed to the stone.
“Head shots, dear,” Nathan said.
“Duck!” I raised my machete. Nathan moved just fast enough to dodge both my weapon and the ghoul’s claws. My blade took its head, but lodged in its scapula.
“I didn’t mean my head, dear.”
I grunted a reply, wrenching the weapon back. I needn’t have pulled so hard—the curse upon me granted unexpected strength. Old bone splintered, the blade popped free, and embedding an inch into the tree behind me.
The fresh sting of injury alerted me to blood oozing down my belly. The beast had clawed me on its way to the ground—even relieved of its head. Ghouls didn’t die immediately after beheading. Good to know.
“I was having a perfectly pleasant evening until you arrived!” It wasn’t precisely true; the ghoul had only exacerbated the mayhem already in progress. Still, if Nathan were to be believed, my flat would be delightfully flame free barring ghoul involvement. I hacked the skeleton to bits, pulverizing the thing into manageable pieces.
I barely heard Nathan behind me as he worked to dispatch the last ghoul. I continued well past the point where grass and clumps of soil began to take abuse abuse instead of the ghoul’s lifeless skeleton.
“Carly. Carlisle. CARLY.” I had no idea how many times Nathan said my name in an attempt to try to get my attention. I stopped swinging, and stood slightly hunched over the remains, fingers white-knuckling a grip on the blade. I was winded more by my emotional response than the whack-a-mole.
Nathan was more or less intact, though his army jacket showed a massive tear. I could smell the hint of his blood like a subtle bouquet under the throat-clogging stench of rot.
There was a soft sound from behind us—the snort of a horse followed by a hiccup. And then a little girl burst into a piercing wail that heralded a rush of hot tears. I locked eyes with Nathan; we both turned ‘round.
The little girl on the Ghost Tour carriage dropped her cotton candy, but her parents didn’t notice. Neither did the elderly couple who’d stopped fanning themselves with complimentary cardboard fans, nor the young couple sporting Lady & Son’s t-shirts; even the chatty tour guide was agape. All of them were staring at us, and the weaponry still in hand.
They stared at us; we stared back.
The moment of tense silence stretched on. I heard Nathan sling the shotgun over his shoulder. I didn’t have to look to know he was grinning widely. The man loved an audience.
“Pardon our mess, ladies and gentlemen. Just practicing.” I said, my voice an octave higher than usual.
Performance art, performance art, performance art, I chanted in my head, willing them to believe it.
Savannah was an art school town. Weird things happened every day in art school towns. Right?
I think I forgot to breathe. A stiff smile froze upon my lips.
Nathan took a bow. I remained upright. Nothing could make me put my face closer to the odiferous mess sinking into the grass of the square. With a sizzle, the larger portions of ghoul-flesh began to melt away.
Soon, only the stink would remain.
An open air bus tour rounded the corner onto the square, the amplified tour guide’s voice carried easily to us, “It’s said the widow Gordon insisted on paying for the marker, despite a generous offer by the Stone Mountain Monument Company, to acquiesce free of charge; so it was that she was sent a bill for a grand total of fifty cents, marked due on Judgment Day.” The slow Southern drawl carried on at an even pace.
“The widow Gordon replied promptly with her payment with a note saying she’d be busy with her own affairs on that day. It was thus that a new monument was erected to Tomochichi, a friend to Savannah’s residents. You will note it still standing on the square if you look to your left—” The elderly gentleman running the tour paused, as his gaze followed his own suggestions—he eyed us and the carriage. The bus continued on a slow roll around the square, but it veered ever so slightly toward the sidewalk.
Eighteen pairs of touristy eyes fixed upon us.
“Oh my lord, what is that smell.”
Nicci Mechler holds an MA English & BFA Studio Art from Northern Kentucky University. She has previously published in a variety of literary magazines and fiction anthologies, is revising her first novel manuscript, and happily edits a sweet little literary magazine called Sugared Water. Nicci lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she writes, paints, and falls asleep with armloads of books. Her blog is damnredshoes.wordpress.com.