ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
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BOOK 1, CHAPTER 14: WHEN SHADOWS BITE, THE DARKNESS FEASTS
Chris sat alone at a table by the window in an unimpressionable café located in the Uptown community area, sipping on a glass of ice-cold Mello Yello soda while waiting for Bret, who was twenty minutes late. As the café’s servers took the orders of the sixth group of customers after taking Chris’s, he began to think Bret had stood him up.
More time passed and the ice in Chris’s glass was now almost entirely melted, the bubbles in the soda now few and far between. Intent on waiting a little longer, Chris surfed the internet on his phone (which for some reason had instantaneous load times and zero lag whatsoever). He posted a status on social media, declaring, “They call me mellow yellow.” He wasn’t sure if he’d heard the phrase from a movie or something, but it popped into his head.
A boy and a girl walked into the café, catching Chris’s attention; it was Bret and a girl Chris didn’t know. Bret looked around, noticed Chris, and gave an uninterested, sullen glower before dismissing the hostess’s greeting.
The two walked over to where Chris was sitting. Bret was trying to avoid eye contact while the girl was giving Chris a smug-ish, smirking stare as she approached, as if sizing up the person who had dared to drag them into such a drab public environment decorated with outdated pastels and family-friendly ornaments.
Bret and the girl took their seats on the other side of the table, pulling the chairs out haphazardly and not bothering to move them closer to the table after sitting down. Chris was about to say something, but Bret spoke first.
“We’re here,” he said straightforwardly, putting emphasis on the obviousness of his statement.
“Yeah, you are,” Chris replied, not really feeling intimidated. Bret’s behavior was to be expected.
There was a moment of silence as Bret waited for Chris to mention their late arrival … Chris never did. Instead, he looked at the girl who was with Bret. She wore a dark purple shirt with an abstract design and cutoff sleeves, tight and torn denim shorts, a studded choker around her neck, mismatched elastic wristbands, elegantly designed leather boots with large buckles, and black and gray-striped leggings. Her long hair was black, probably dyed, accented with seafoam blue and frost white, and styled into an edgy punk look combed mostly to the right, giving her hair the characteristics of an ocean wave. Her fingernails were bright green, and both of her arms were heavily tattooed, being elaborate murals of color blending frightening images with gorgeous motifs.
Having her around defeated the purpose of the two boys meeting privately to discuss the situation, although Chris had never said it was private or to come alone.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Chris said to the girl, trying not to sound overly polite. “I’m Chris.”
The girl didn’t answer while still looking at Chris, and she hardly responded at all except for the deepening of the smirk on her face. She and Bret looked at each other somewhat lustfully. Across the restaurant, a man with a Chicago Cubs baseball cap accidentally knocked his coffee mug off the table. It shattered noisily.
“This is my friend,” Bret said, not really looking at Chris but still swapping lusty looks with the girl. “She’s a novelist. Her pen name is Bridge Snow.”
Chris glanced at a server who was cleaning up the broken coffee mug. The man wearing the Cubs hat didn’t appear very apologetic.
“What kind of novels?” Chris asked them both, hoping one of them would answer.
“Fantasy horror,” Bridge Snow replied with a French accent, fixated on Chris’s Adam’s apple before moving her eyes into his. She had dazzling blue eyes, mysterious and penetrating. Perhaps it was how she used them that was so enticing. “Also horror romance.” Her stare intensified, her small smile full of eloquence. “My latest is named When Shadows Bite, the Darkness Feasts.”
Chris tried to appear interested before Bret spoke up.
“So, we’re here,” he said, stating the obvious again, but with more emphasis on his dwindling patience.
Finding the right words to say was challenging.
“I’d like you to help me, Bret,” Chris told him. He had no idea why he thought enlisting Bret’s aid would be a good idea.
Bridge Snow placed her hand on Bret’s thigh as he diverted his uninterested gaze around the table and out the window. The server who had taken Chris’s soda order returned with menus for the two new customers at the table, and she asked them if they wanted drinks.
“Coffee,” Bridge Snow said, not looking at the server, but at her bright green fingernails.
“Columbian or Sumatra?” the server asked.
Bridge Snow seemed delighted she had been given an option.
“Sumatra,” she said without hesitation.
“Mountain Dew,” was Bret’s order.
“Sorry, we don’t have Mountain Dew,” the server replied courteously. “We have Mello Yello.”
Bret rolled his eyes. “Sure.”
“Do you need a minute to decide what you want?”
“Sure.” Bret was leaning back in his seat, nose turned slightly upward and frowning while staring at the menu laid out flat on the table.
Chris quickly slurped the remainder of his watery, flat soda before requesting a refill. When the server left the table, Bret steered the conversation back on track.
“What’s in it for me?” he asked, finally looking at Chris.
“I don’t really know,” Chris told him truthfully. “There’s bound to be something in it for you, but I don’t know what yet.”
Bret chuckled, saying, “That’s not a good answer.”
“It’s the correct answer, though.”
The server brought the drinks, but Bret didn’t stop the conversation.
“I’m a busy person,” he said, pulling his chair closer to the table for easier access to his drink, and Bridge Snow did the same. “I’m also stingy with my money. If something is a waste of time, then it’s also a waste of money.”
“Are you ready to order?” the server asked.
Bret sighed and glanced over the menu he had barely even looked at.
“Bacon cheeseburger. Just with bacon and cheese.”
Bridge Snow ordered next.
“Two eggs, one over easy and one scrambled. And rye toast, dry.”
The server walked away again and Bret went quiet. It was Chris’s turn to speak now.
“I don’t know what you want out of it.”
“Money would be nice,” Bret sneered, “or help with my business.”
Chris’s eyes narrowed.
“What do you mean? You have a business?”
Bret shrugged. “I have a way of creating income. Think of me as a supply guy.”
“You’re a drug dealer is what you’re saying.”
Bret shrugged again, smirking. Bridge Snow gripped Bret’s thigh harder.
“I’m not going to help you sell drugs,” Chris told him.
“Then money would be nice.”
Chris looked at his fresh, full glass of Mello Yello, untouched, and noticed how it was still fully carbonated and the ice cubes were still intact.
“This is more important than money,” Chris said firmly. “People’s lives are on the line. It sounds crazy and may be hard to believe, but it’s the truth. I want your help, and you can do whatever you feel like as long as it helps me out. I’ll help you out, too.”
“Why do you want my help?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“What is it you want me to help with?” Bret asked. “You ain’t told me.”
“Well … to make the world a better place, I guess,” Chris said. “It’s a long explanation, though,” he looked at Bridge Snow who was looking at Bret, “but I’ll have to explain it in private.”
Bret chuckled again, entertained by Chris’s sudden (but expected) altruism. He leaned in closer just to give Chris a better view of the smug look on his face.
“Do I look like I give a damn about people’s lives, or well-being, or any of that fairytale bullshit?” His voice was low, stern, and mocking.
Chris and Bret stared at each other. Bridge Snow was giving Chris a sultry look insultingly, and as Bret pulled her closer, she slid her hand farther up Bret’s thigh. The man with the Cubs baseball cap paid his bill without tipping and exited the café. On the table, Chris’s phone vibrated obnoxiously as it received a text message from his mom, saying she and his dad would be going out to dinner and she had brought home some leftover pasta from work for him to reheat.
Satisfied by Chris’s silent frustration, Bret leaned back in his seat and took some sips of his drink. Bridge Snow dumped copious amounts of sugar into her coffee and stirred it daintily with a fork.
“Is that all you gotta say?” Bret asked Chris.
Not answering right away, Chris eventually said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
An expression of boredom swept over Bret’s face. He sighed and took a gulp of his drink, furrowing his brow.
“Mello Yello is not Mountain Dew,” he stated, setting his glass forcefully on the table.
The food arrived, creating a small break in the talk-less occasion. Bret glopped ketchup onto his bacon cheeseburger and fries, then messily chowed down, dripping ketchup all over the table and his pants that were already stained. Bridge Snow popped open the runny yolk on her one over easy egg and dipped ripped-up pieces of her dry rye toast into it.
Halfway through his meal, Bret looked back at Chris, who was still sitting at the table and looking at his phone; Marilyn and Drake had liked his recent social media post, along with a few other people.
“You still here?” Bret grunted, wiping the ketchup off his face with his arm.
Chris looked at him.
“I’m not done with you.”
Bret rolled his eyes, shoved a handful of fries into his mouth, and licked the ketchup off his fingers. Bridge Snow looked at Bret with a mild grimace … she didn’t like ketchup and would have licked his fingers for him if it had been mustard.
“Alright, man,” Bret said before forcing the loudest belch he could, causing some people to look his way, “you can keep trying. But let me warn you, okay? If you happen to piss me off … I don’t know what’ll happen, but it probably will suck for you. You got it?”
Chris took a sip of his drink. The carbonation felt a little painful, like pin pricks in his mouth.
“I’m fine with that,” he replied.
The memory of Mr. Kampton with powerful angel wings crossed Bret’s mind.
“I gotta admit,” Bret told him, “there’s a reason why I actually showed up here today to talk to you.” He paused for a second, watching a blonde girl wearing a dress get into a taxi across the street from the café. “There’s something weird about you. Something, oh, I don’t know, that makes me wanna believe you. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have kicked your idea to the curb, but you seem like you actually have something to offer.”
Chris mulled it over briefly.
“What reason is that?”
The image of Mr. Kampton as an angel was now occupying Bret’s thoughts. He was so caught up in the notion that he didn’t answer Chris, not out of spite, but because he didn’t realize Chris had said anything. Looking at the last third of his food, he decided he was done eating.
When Bridge Snow had finished, the white of the over easy egg remained untouched next to the pile of rye crusts, and she sipped her Sumatra coffee until there was nothing but brown-stained sugar on the bottom of the mug. She licked the last of the coffee from the fork she used as a stir stick, and Chris noticed the large pearl-white stud on her surprisingly long tongue that she pressed against the fork slower and harder than probably necessary.
“Babe, will you pay for me, too?” she asked Bret.
“You can pay for yourself,” Bret replied, unfazed by where her hand was going along his thigh.
Appearing disappointed for only a few seconds, Bridge Snow directed her magnetic, blue eyes back to Chris, who looked back with disdain as the server removed their dishes. More silence followed when the checks were brought.
Bret and Bridge Snow paid for the food, stood up, didn’t push their chairs in, and headed toward the exit. Bridge Snow stopped walking, rummaged through her patched, quilted purse, and took out a business card which she handed to Chris. It was very professional-looking and described herself as an author with links to a few websites. When Chris looked up, she was already walking away from the table.
“Catch ya around, Chris,” Bret said, directing his words at the hanging light fixtures.
Although unexplainable, the ambient noise of the café sounded louder to Chris, and it was easier to pick out the individual voices, clinking plates, kitchen sounds, footsteps, TV playing CNN, cellphone ringtones, printers spitting out order tickets, and various doors opening and closing. There was no music playing in the café.
Chris stared at his cheap bill and thought about the pasta waiting for him at home, but it didn’t sound very appealing, even though he didn’t know what kind it was. The server came back to collect the payments, and Chris asked her to add a fish sandwich and onion rings to his order.
She apologized, “Sorry, we’re out of the fish.”
“Oh, then don’t worry about it.”
“Would you still like the onion rings?”
“No, that’s okay.”
Chris paid for his bill and left.
The party in the messy house in the Canaryville neighborhood was chill, with no more than ten guests altogether. In the kitchen, Bret and his buddy Guy were talking about random topics. Bret shuddered slightly, then pounded his fists together a couple of times, getting pumped up as he grabbed a bottle of vodka and over-poured himself a full shot glass and gulped it down.
“Where’s that girl you said you were with earlier?” Guy asked, pushing his back against the refrigerator, crinkling the picture hanging on it, a computer paper printout of the Black Lagoon anime. He was in his early twenties, tall with a shaved head, and had a scar on his bottom lip obtained from his first knife fight at age eleven.
“Eh, I don’t know,” Bret replied flatly. “She comes and goes.”
“You should’ve brought her,” Guy said. “Is she hot?”
“Nice body, but dresses crazy. She has a French accent that just, like, does it for me, ya know?”
Guy beckoned toward the wrinkled Black Lagoon picture on the refrigerator.
“Does she like anime?”
“I hope not.”
Bret stared at the tiled wall by the sink, toying with the empty shot glass in his hand. Many of the tiles had fallen off. The rest were covered in grime and resembled the mountain of dishes filling both sink compartments. A dusty lightbulb illuminated the sink and counter.
Opening the fridge he was pressing into, Guy grabbed a beer for himself and one for Bret; two bottles of Star Chicken Shotgun west coast-style IPAs by Greenbush Brewing Company, which Guy swore was the best craft beer he had ever drank. Bret waved away the beer handed to him and nodded toward the vodka bottle, which he was content with.
As Guy headed into the living room with both beers, Bret looked at his cellphone and was met with a black, damaged, nonresponsive screen; the battery was dead and Bret remembered stealing a new phone charger was something he had wanted to do. He crammed the lifeless phone into his pocket, enthusiastically grabbed the bottle of vodka, and trotted to the bathroom.
There was a large, cracked mirror hanging over the bathroom sink in which he examined his face, rubbing his scruffy beard that was beginning to itch. Maybe, he thought, he could grow it out … but would Katie Vickers like that? She had been on his mind recently, but Bridge Snow was an effective distraction from her.
He relieved himself of the full bladder he didn’t realize was aching while chugging straight from his vodka bottle, wiped the dribbled liquor from his mouth, didn’t flush (the downstairs toilet didn’t work anyway), and walked out of the bathroom while buttoning his pants with the bottle tucked firmly under his arm.
Something black flittered in the corner of his eye, and he stopped buckling his belt while he looked around. Moments later, when his belt was fastened, he saw it again, only it moved clearly into his line of sight.
In the kitchen was a shadow shaped faintly like a small four-legged animal. It didn’t seem to mind or notice Bret as it floated across the floor, but Bret definitely minded it. A girl who called herself Vixen was in the kitchen as well, scrounging through the cabinets for more bottles of booze.
“Where the hell is the bourbon and Jägermeister?” she muttered with a slippery slur. Her pink and black-striped hair was styled in a short pixie cut, which matched well with her purely black, tight attire. “Oh, Bret. Can you, like, help? I know, just know that bourbon and Jägermeister are here … somewhere … or something.”
The silhouette was still on the move, silent and smoggy, across the linoleum kitchen floor.
“What is that?” Bret asked bluntly, pointing at the blackness with legs it didn’t seem to even need to use.
“Huh?” Vixen turned her head the way a puppet does with an amateur puppet master. Her cloudy eyes scanned the kitchen. The target of Bret’s question should’ve been very obvious from her perspective. “What’s what?”
Bret stabbed his finger in the direction of the shadow.
Vixen turned her palms upward and gave a slow shrug and a wrinkled face.
“I got no clue what you mean.”
Bret’s finger drooped. The thing was right in front of Vixen, and there was no way she was drunk enough to not see it. He blinked a few times, but it didn’t go away. The bottle of vodka slipped from under his arm and he panicked as he tried to catch it, but he failed and the bottle hit the floor and bounced. He forgot it was plastic, not glass, but a good amount spilled out due to the fact he had lost the cap hours ago.
“You okay?” Vixen asked, looking more amused than concerned. “You didn’t have any mixed drinks that Guy had, did you?”
“What of it?” Bret grunted, flustered while getting the vodka bottle upright again, squeezing it so tightly the neck began to collapse. He had no idea how hard he was gripping it.
“It coulda been laced,” Vixen told him, hanging on to the counter, her eyes blinking slowly and a little out of sync. “Guy drinks a lot of his stuff spiked with stuff. That might be why you’re seeing things, honey.”
Bret watched the shadow move through a wall. He didn’t really hear what Vixen was telling him, because he just saw something move through a wall. He looked at the vodka in his hand with a scowl, then at Vixen, who was still talking. Not caring about a word she had to say, Bret walked swiftly out of the kitchen and past Vixen, who disapproved of him leaving while she was still talking to him.
The living room was where the thing would’ve ended up after passing through the wall, and sure enough Bret saw it wafting about and staying close to the floor. A handful of people were sitting around an old coffee table and smoking cigarettes. On the coffee table was a scattered deck of Cards Against Humanity, and the TV was playing the music video for “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by Kendrick Lamar, streamed off a video game console.
“Yo, Bret,” Guy muttered from the couch he was sinking into like a paperweight. “You wanna play Cards Against Humanity?”
“No, no,” Bret replied sharply, still focusing on his ghostly target as it moved through the wall leading to outside.
“Then, uh, can you pass the vodka? Damn, dude, lookit how much ya drank. Spread the love, don’t, like, hog it.”
Irritated, Bret set the bottle on the coffee table, saying, “I’m leaving. Gotta do something.”
“Whaddaya mean you’re leaving?” Guy asked, flicking his cigarette ashes on the stinky carpet. “It ain’t even late yet.”
Bret left the house and checked in all directions as he made his way to the sidewalk. Sure enough, the little black critter was skittering away, about a jogging pace for a human, and Bret tailed it.
Twilight was settling quickly, so following something that looked to be made entirely from shadow was challenging. There wasn’t even any good reason Bret could find within himself for following the thing to begin with. His phone was dead, so he couldn’t capture it on video. Catching it seemed impossible if it could ignore walls, and was irrational since he didn’t know what he would even do with it. Raw curiosity was the motivator.
Cars drove by, their headlights passing through the black critter as the shadow could not cast shadows itself. If a beam of light could pass entirely through something with no reflection whatsoever, then physics stated a person would not be able to see it, but that did not occur to Bret at all, who was like a cat chasing a laser pointer.
He stumbled around a street corner, avoiding a collision with another pedestrian, and it was brought to his attention there was over a pint of vodka guiding the coordination of his legs. Quick to regain his equilibrium, the delinquent continued the pursuit.
“The hell is this about?” he mumbled to himself, picking up the pace as he began to lag behind. “I swear, Guy, if that stuff was laced, I’m gonna bust your chops.”
There was an alley behind some closed stores where the black thing turned off the street, not going through any walls. Bret sneered, feeling he would be able to corner it in the alley, however unjustifiable that feeling could be.
In the depths of the alley, under yellow lights humming with electricity and swarmed by moths, surrounded with noisy cooler compressor units and oily mud puddles from a brief rain, stood the smoggy cretin. Not only did it stand there, but it was waiting.
Bret, who was now running, suddenly stopped. He stared at that which stared back … with no eyes, it stared back at the boy. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Bret was now faced with the consequences of confronting his target which now acknowledged him, and he didn’t have a plan to begin with.
But it didn’t matter, because the shadow had decided to make the first move.
The shadow had changed its form, and had done so with such instantaneous speed that Bret couldn’t understand what had happened. He couldn’t understand why he suddenly came face-to-face with a towering beast overflowing with predatory intent, now less shadowlike and flaunting talon-paved jaws and mace-fist claws.
There was no explanation for the air feeling stolen and empty around this cretin. The situation simply was what it had become.
With a long swing, the beast hurled its boulder of a fist forward in a wide arc, and Bret could see and hear the oncoming attack tear through the nearby chain link fence as it rapidly approached him. Having been involved in numerous street scuffles in the past, the delinquent instinctively held up his arms to guard himself from the gigantic punch.
The impact hit Bret’s guarded stance with the force of a raging rhinoceros. Certain of his untimely demise, Bret missed his chance to counterattack when he failed to realize he had successfully blocked the attack, and was merely pushed back several feet. He was still standing, he noticed, and his arms, although slightly sore, were far from broken.
Before the shock of his realization could reach its peak, the beast lunged forth with another attack, and its other mace-like fist landed a direct blow on Bret’s right abdomen. The boy felt himself come off the ground and felt the wind through his hair before slamming into part of the chain link fence that remained intact.
Bret’s vision shook as he slid from the fence and landed on his feet with a wobbly posture. As the world around him came back into focus, he looked at the beast and watched it poise for another attack.
From the pit of his heart, Bret suddenly felt a surge of adrenaline. Something in his intoxicated brain snapped and fell into alignment, and he clenched his fists and teeth so hard he risked pulling a muscle or breaking a bone.
Every thought fell from his mind except for a single primal emotion … Bret was furious.
Again, a beastly punch was hurled toward Bret, who charged forward with a wrathful punch of his own. Screaming with fury, he connected his punch into the enemy’s. The force of the collision rippled through the boy’s tattered shirt and pants, blowing away the dust and dirt from the ground surrounding him, but he could feel the brunt of the energy directed away from him and straight into his assailant.
The black-bodied beast reeled backward and appeared to do so in slow motion. Not caring if this slow movement was a result of adrenaline or some other unexplained phenomena, Bret saw his opening and went in for another attack, an uppercut into what appeared to be the beast’s chin located beneath its talon-paved jaws.
Then he went in for another punch, and then another, and yet another, blowing shadowy debris from the assailant with every hit, too lost in the moment to notice the shadowy debris was vanishing into nothingness like steam being sucked into an unseen vent. Every connected blow felt like punching frozen cotton candy which melted through his knuckles and swirled in his elbows, which was highly satisfying.
The beast collapsed against the wall of the store building, clawing deep grooves into the bricks with its talon-paved jaws as it fumbled for balance, effectively severing a power cable on the wall to an outdoor lamp snuffed out due to the lack of electricity.
Just as the iciness in Bret’s hands and arms was too much to bear, he stopped attacking and watched the tall beast crumble into an oily puddle. For the first time since this skirmish began, a question came to Bret as he wondered why this cretin no longer chose to phase through solid objects as it had been just earlier. Looking at the fresh, deep cuts in the brick wall only made this question more weighted.
Since the air still felt drained of the ambient essences humans don’t detect until it’s missing, Bret knew his assailant was still alive … although the word “alive” was quite a stretch. Something resembling a deep breath flowed into the crumbled beast, so the boy acted quickly while he still had a chance.
Leaping into the air higher than he thought was possible, Bret let out a wild substance-induced, adrenaline-pumped battle cry, bringing his fist straight down into what could pass as the beast’s chest. His hand pierced the outer layer of the black body like icy bubble wrap, and dove into what felt like a pool of liquid helium and razor blades.
A dark clamp suddenly tightened down onto Bret’s mind, taking control of his movements, and he was unable to prevent his hand from swimming through the vacuum wasteland of the beast’s innards. Feeling panicked by what was happening and the loss of control over his own body, Bret was forced to feel his own fingers wrap around a thick-skinned water balloon organ, clutch it with a grip as strong as a hydraulic press, then viciously tear it out from the beast. Since the removed object was absolutely black and vanished instantly, Bret could not accurately see what it was, but it was obviously vital to the beast’s existence.
The beast, now some equivalent form of being dead, dissipated and embraced Bret with a chilly nebula. When the air’s essence slowly returned to the void around the boy, panic inevitably came with it. Bret stumbled back, shivering more from fright than from the gradually fading cold.
He swallowed hard. Then swallowed again, even harder, gasping for breath.
“W-what … the hell …?”
Glancing around, he remembered he was in Chicago. It was night. There were hundreds of thousands of people. Nobody had witnessed this but the moths. The assailant was gone. Gashes continued to remain in the brick wall, the chain link fence was mangled, and Bret had to get out of there. Right. Now.
He sprinted from the alleyway back to the street, stumbled several times, then dashed in no particular direction. No particular plan, thought, goal, nor destination occurred to Bret. Only run, and run far.