Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis reigned in hell, until they kicked her out. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. Her mission takes her deep into the den of legendary creature with a fondness for eggs.
Join us on the hunt for the allusive EASTER JACKALOPE. A short story that asks: What happens when paranormal researchers are confronted by a Pokémon trainer?
Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis reigned in hell, until they kicked her out. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. Her mission takes her to Ireland, where a trio of trickster goddesses challenge her resolve.
Sit in on this accursed contest we’re calling THE DUET WITH DEATH. A short story that asks: What happens when demonology collides with Irish folklore?
My driver caught me spiking my hair in the rearview.
“More of a scheme than a plan.”
His eyes wandered to the rhinestones along my bustline. My eyes wandered to the medallion hanging from his mirror. St. Benedict? No. St. Christopher? No. St. Valentine. Figures.
“Is your date meeting you there?” He addressed my rhinestones.
“Yeah,” I broke his sightline, adjusting the pouch hidden beneath my bra. “The little devil’s been there for ages now.”
My driver’s smile faded on the way up Mulholland. The gridlock had him gritting his teeth. He didn’t relent until when we reached the estate. That’s when his jaw dropped. The manor had a sculpture garden, a lazy river, and a skyway between the wings. Then we rounded the corner and he went right back to grinding.
A gathering of bright young things had amassed along the double staircase. They ran all the way out onto the lawn, jamming the motorcade, ensuring none of the chauffeurs could turn. My driver stared daggers at the mirror.
I strapped my bag over my shoulder. “I could use the walk.”
And with those words he transformed into a perfect gentleman, opening the door, tipping his cap, offering his hand.
I smoothed my skirt, slid on my velvet mask, and bid him adieu. “May your life be filled with rhinestones.”
A murder of goth influencers had gathered at the entrance. Tanker boots up to their kneecaps. Lolita skirts up to their thigh gaps. Wednesday Adams blouses buttoned to their chokers. Jet black pigtails whipping through the air. I barreled toward them in my crimson gown, a sparkling comet ready to char the landscape. My pixie haircut spiked into horns. My bat mask spread from ear to ear. My stilettos clicking like cloven hooves. The black sea parted as the red death approached.
When I heard, “Valentine’s Ball” I thought, “Masquerade.” So, that’s what I dressed for. No one told me the dress code would be, “Funeral casual.” To be fair, no one sent me invitation either.
“Name?” The bouncer spoke to the shadow on his list.
“Look up.” I answered.
He scanned my rhinestones and my high cheekbones and waved me in.
This is how I got into the shock rocker’s mansion. The shock rocker in question? Who cares? I didn’t come for autographs. I came for an artifact, which is why I had a travel pouch hanging from my bra clasp. All I had to do was get through the throng.
Party planners had dressed the foyer like a b-movie graveyard, full of cherubs, black roses, and mist. A smoke machine pumped fog at the guests in long drawn-out bursts. That gave me the opportunity to steal away to the gallery.
The host had an extensive collection of occult items and I had my heart set on one: a hand carved devil from a Punch and Judy show. According to legend, the devil had driven his trident through his puppeteer’s neck. Witnesses claimed the devil kept moving long after the puppeteer stopped breathing. Since then, the devil has been imprisoned in a silver case, with stained glass windows, and hinges lined with rosary beads.
Hermetic orders have passed the case down since Victorian times, conferring the same instructions: do not look upon it with sin in your heart, do not look upon it at night, and whatever you do, DO NOT TAP THE GLASS, but when I tapped the glass, nothing happened. No vibrations in my armored ring. No alarm bells in my mind. Just a rattling hinge and a puppet with a big clueless grin.
“You’re not supposed to do that.” A woman whispered over my shoulder.
Her silhouette leaned into the corner of my vision. She stood at eye level, even with my stilettos.
“Do what?” I whispered.
“Tap the glass.” A lace fingerless glove pointed to the sign that read DO NOT TAP THE GLASS. “It’ll wake the devil.”
I tapped again. “It should say OUT OF ORDER.”
I went to tap for a third time, but the woman took my wrist and spun me around.
“Do you want to see something creepy?” Her eyes lit up.
She whisked me into the gallery. The display cases whizzed by in a blur as I kept my pale blue eyes on hers. Her eyes were a deep soulful brown. Her face radiated with a warm Greek glow and she had the faintest little groove on the tip of her nose. She wore a denim jacket covered in enamel pins, a white tutu, and a matching bow.
I’d heard the word, “Ball” and came dressed for a masquerade. She heard the word, “Ball” and came dressed for homecoming.
My stilettos screeched as we slid to our destination.
A stuffed canine stood on its hind legs, paws primed, fangs bared, eyes fixed on anyone who dared look in its direction.
“Aen-o-cy-on dir-us guil-day-i.” The women read off the plaque.
“It’s a dire wolf, like Luperca, the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus back to the health.”
What do they teach in schools these days?
“Once upon a time, there was king named Numitor. By all accounts a just and decent man, so he had to be overthrown. His brother, Amulius, threw his hat into the ring. He seized the throne, killed Numitor’s son, and condemned his daughter to a vow of chastity. So naturally, she got pregnant with twins. She named them Romulus and Remus. When Amulius found out, he set them in baskets and tossed them into the river Tiber. A dire wolf swam out to receive them, but rather than gobble them up, she brought them into her den and nursed them back to health. The brothers named her Luperca. Luperca’s milk helped them grow big and strong. Strong enough to overthrow the king and found the city of Rome.”
The woman scanned her brow. “Why does that sound like the story of Moses?”
“Because it is. It’s the story of Krishna, Ra, Osiris.” I tilted my head back and forth. “They each have a basket. They each have rivers and they each have a savior.”
“I guess some legends have to share.”
It had been a while since I’d heard a mortal stumble upon a truth like that. She didn’t know what to make of the fascinated look in my eyes and turned back to the wolf.
The forgery impressed even me, from its long-rippled tongue to the sweat dripping from its nostrils, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was looking at the woman reflected in the glass. The material girl, making me nostalgic for the 1980s.
“My name is Alexis. By the way.” She addressed my reflection.
“Is that like Matilda?”
“Older, but I’m bringing it back.”
My eyes wandered up her gallery of enamel pins, past the triple-moon goddess, the death’s head moth, and the Ouija board planchette, to the pin above her pocket. I reached out. “Can I have this?”
It looked like a goat posing as a Playboy Bunny, with its horns in place of the ears.
“The Play Goat?” She beamed. “Hell yeah, you can. I’m designer, this like my logo.
Alexis took it from her pocket and pinned it to my dress, like a carnation.
Her fingers felt so natural hovering over my heart. I couldn’t help but exhale. She froze.
I ran my fingers down her pins, testing the elasticity of her comfort bubble. Her breathing slowed, her eyes narrowed, and her lips parted. My fingers found her elbow and eased her closer. She gripped my shoulders for balance. Her touch felt safe and familiar, like home. I aligned the tip of my nose to indentation in hers. I leaned forward and she met me in the middle.
I never did get that puppet.
Alexis and I hit the honeymoon phase pretty hard, confining ourselves to the bedroom, starring at each other between sessions like, “I can’t believe what you’ve done.” Her eyes stinging with sweat. My hair reduced to a series of cowlicks. She stayed so long; her roommate threatened to file a missing person report if she didn’t text back.
Now I’m not one for labels, but I’m told I’m omnisexual: someone attracted to every gender, but that definition feels narrow. My unique anatomy affords me a lot of opportunities. I’ve been attracted to some abstract things: psychic parasites who straddle their hosts at night, possessed individuals with legions of souls, four-headed cherubim like the ones back home.
I’m from the silver city. THE silver city. I was cast out for questioning my strict religious upbringing. Forced underground, I started a community of my own, but things turned political and I got shut out by my own people. They left me in this realm where everything is fragile and nothing lasts long.
Since the dawn of civilization, I’ve been searching for a connection. I tried to relate to kings, politicians and business tycoons, but they were all so boring. I’m more attracted to people with inspiration. To the music makers and the dreamers of dreams.
Alexis oozed inspiration. It showed it in all her fashion-forward designs. Her single shoulder blazers. Her asymmetric collars. Her lone leg trousers. It showed in how she modeled her creations, smirking through the runway deadpan. It showed in how she carried herself on the town. “Who am I wearing? Me, myself, and I.”
Socialites gravitated toward her at film premiers, at gallery openings, backstage at concerts. They’d shout her name across crowded rooms. “Alexis, you owe me an outfit.” She could’ve wandered off with any one of them, and yet, she stayed close.
I wanted to take things to the next level, but with her lifestyle, Alexis preferred to do things without a title.
“Let’s just enjoy what we have now.”
With my temperament, I wanted something consistent.
I’d ask about her five-year plan, as a coded way asking about her five-decade plan. I’d ask how she felt about children, as a coded way of asking how she’d fare through generations. I’d ask what she’d do if she could turn back time, as a coded way of asking what she’d do with all the time in the world.
“In five years, I want to take my fashion career to the next level. I love children, but I’d rather just be the cool aunt. I wouldn’t turn back time. It’s always better look forward.”
“What if there’s more time behind you than there is ahead?” I muttered to myself.
I know you shouldn’t hide tests in your relationship. You’re supposed to be honest, but too much honesty can shatter a mortal’s reality. It’s best to assess their grasp of metaphysics, before introducing new planes of consciousness.
I decided to pop the question on our three-year anniversary, make it another Valentine’s Day to remember. Alexis had taken modeling gig in Europe, which gave me plenty of time to plan the evening out. We meet at our favorite restaurant the moment her plane touched down. I would hand Alexis a heart-shaped box. She’d open it and find it filled with sand. She’d ask, “Why sand?” and I’d lay it out all out. How I’m technically a demon. How the self-appointed king of Hell won’t let me back in. How I stole sand from Father Time.
I’d get down on bended knee and ask, “How would you like to spend eternity with me?”
The night played out differently. Alexis kept me waiting at a table for two, the gift of immortality waiting between my heels. The courses came. The chef gave his speech. The courses stacked up. I called Alexis, and gave a speech of my own.
I called for weeks. Every time, the phone rang five times before going to voicemail. If Alexis wanted to shut me out, she could’ve blocked me, but she didn’t. This had me worried.
Her booking agent said she took a gig in Austria. I contacted the photographer. He said she’d gone into the alps with some friends. He didn’t know if they came back down.
I studied the train routes and waved a scrying pendulum over the map. Alexis was last seen in town called Verstecktes Tal. A car free community with shuttle buses and horse drown carriages. A destination for rock climbers and cross-country skiers. Not aspiring fashion designers.
My contact in Vienna set me up with a pair of dowsing rods, not the copper ones you find on Etsy, but the glass ones blown from ash stone. I trekked to Verstecktes Tal and waved them over every cabin, over wine cellars, and restaurant basements. I felt for vibrations in the cobblestones, sewer grates, and fresh graves. When things got desperate, I drugged a priest, so I could scour his rectory. I befriended a pair of junkyard dogs, until their owner came to see what the silence was about. I picked a locked, and almost got lockjaw stepping onto a bed of nails.
The search left me wandering through the forest in the dark. My collar brimming with pine needles. Boot treads clogged with muck. Toes caked with snow. I felt for thinness in the air, for a gap in reality large enough for Alexis to slip through, but the rods never moved.
If I was going to find my lover, I would need an expert.
Many sanctuaries claim to contain St. Valentine’s remains. Some claim bits and pieces, others claim the whole skeleton. The Catholic church doesn’t dispute these contradictions, because they keep the tourists coming. Who doesn’t want to spend their trip paying respects to a decapitated evangelist? I didn’t, but I needed a piece of him if I was ever going to find Alexis.
This meant a lot of ink in my passport, so I’d have to pack light. A lockpick in my heel, a nun habit in my satchel, and my hair up in a veil.
Sister Mary Mahthildis toured the parishes of Europe, leaving a mess in her wake. Clergy members described her to Interpol, saying she carried herself more like an actress than a woman of the cloth, with her smokey eyeshadow and bloodred lipstick. They all remembered her as pale. Pale as a painting. Not a Renaissance painting, but a painting you’d find on an album cover. They’d say she licked her lips, like she was hungry. Hungry like the wolf.
Every destination left me starving. Glasgow’s relics were glaringly fake. Dublin’s were dubious. Prague’s were pretend. Madrid’s were all made up, and Terini’s were tenuous at best. Here I thought monks invented genetics, you’d think the church would know how to run a DNA test.
Only one site remained. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The relic? A gap-toothed skull, with a crown of pedals, and the words S. VALENTINI written across its brow. I saved this one for last because it seemed the least authentic, like a Gucci bag with a copper finish. Still, I had to check.
Visitors to the Basilica were met with the face of an angry titan, a 1 ton carving in an ancient sewer cover. His empty eyes watched me step out of line. He saw me reach up my sleeve and put something in my palm. The titan’s nostrils flared, inhaling the ammonia aroma. Its gob hung open anticipating what was coming.
The sculpture was called the Mouth of Truth. Tourists lined up to take selfies with their fingers between his lips. Legend had it if you were dishonest, his mouth would clamp shut and snap your hand off. I couldn’t help but slide my armored ring across his tongue and tap the back of his throat. Sorry to report, the Mouth of Truth was out of service. No surprise there. If legends were true, I’d have burst into flames the moment I stepped into the building.
That’s the thing about legends, they’re built on top of the truth. Take the basilica. The church built it upon the Temple of Hercules, casting out the pagan powerlifter for a skull with a nasal fracture. Just like they built Valentine’s Day upon the feast of Lupercalia, watering down a purge party with a Hallmark holiday.
Oh, how I miss the real reason for the season, before the dead roses and dinner reservations. The Romans knew how to throw a party back then. They sacrificed goats at the altar of the dire wolf, dosed themselves in blood and milk, and streaked across the city. They flogged anyone who crossed their path and plenty of women were happy to do just that, offering their wrists for a ceremonial slap. Not my erogenous zone, but who am I to kink shame?
Then Valentinus had to go get himself killed and killed all the fun.
Valentinus, the patron saint of lovers, got his name from performing midnight weddings. He did this despite Emperor Claudius’s mandate that his troops live like Jedi Knights, unburdened by emotional attachments. Claudius refused to enlist anyone with a ball and chain. Registered men sought Valentinus to doge the draft. It didn’t take long for the Roman Legion to come a-knocking.
Valentinus got house arrest. When a judge came to review his case, Valentinus used the opportunity to push his faith. The judge decided to put the priest’s faith to the test. He presented Valentinus with his daughter, a girl who’d been blind from birth. Valentinus stuck his thumbs in her eye sockets and low and behold, she saw stars. Valentinus walked.
Of course, faith is like a drug, and Valentinus couldn’t help himself. Before long he was back on the street slinging that Christian rock. This time he got himself thrown in lock up.
Now Emperor Claudius considered himself a merciful man. He took it upon himself to visit Valentinus in the dungeon. He tried to win Valentinus back to paganism, but the priest was too far gone. Claudius had no choice, but to put Valentinus out of his misery, by clubbing him, stoning him, and chopping his head off.
I needed that head to raise the dead.
The sculptures eyed Sister Mary Mahthildis as she checked out the security apparatus. Surveillance cameras. Check. Motion sensors. Check. Crucifixes. All over the place. The halls filled with prerecorded chanting, like a Gregorian alarm system. The virgin Mary watched from the ceiling, as did the cherubs, eyeing the genuine cherubim who walked among them. My wheels concealed. My wings folded in. My jeweled plating reduced to but a ring.
Scanning the walls, I spotted fluted columns, remnants from the temple the church had paved over. Running my ring along the railings, I came upon St. Valentine by accident. His skull sat upon an altar, in a box more bronze than gold, dwarfed by a painting of another saint. You wouldn’t know it was him had they not stamped his name to his forehead. I lifted my thick rimmed glasses from the strap around my neck. The lenses weren’t prescription, but someone needed to have a look around.
I raised my hands in prayer, and whispered, “Elizaveta?”
“Yes, my child.” Elizaveta responded from a speaker in the ear band, her Russian accent made all the more apparent by her authoritative tone.
“How’s the power grid going?”
“Swimmingly. Italian ice is really easy to crack. No wonder the Vatican is drowning in botnet.”
“Do people really talk like that?”
“In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, they do.”
Elizaveta had been reading between assignments. She’d come a long way from the chatbot the CIA had pitted against the Russians. Especially since, I gave her the gift of sentience.
I panned the lenses up to the rafters. “I need a place to set the rest of my valentine’s gifts.”
“Then you’ll have to wander off the tour.” Elizaveta played an audio wave of fingers scattering across a keyboard. The lights for the security cameras blinked off and on.
I pinched my glasses by the hinge. “I take it the closed-circuit television is playing reruns?”
“Now would be a good time to visit the upper levels.”
The basilica had a belltower, a good place for a limber individual to step out onto the window sill. An even better place to tape my gifts up. Not to ruin the surprise, but it’s amazing what one can find on the Italian dark web. With my party favors in place, I found a blind spot, and stretched out on the shingles.
Alexis had a thing for trashy romance novels. She used to knock on the bathroom door to quote them. “Her petals blossomed as he laid his pollen—”
“Her nipples erected like a pair of tents.”
“Her caress made his manhood inflate like a long balloon in the grip of a party clown.”
“Nope. Nope. Nope.”
With hours to kill, I cracked one of Alexis’s worn spines open. The book had all the tropes I’d come to expect: the big city girl returning to her small-town roots. The football has-been who’d grown since then. The bank vault they found themselves trapped in. The long night before the branch manager returned. Petite protagonist. Towering beefcake. The story writes itself.
For the longest time, I struggled to understand why Alexis read these things, as if her life wasn’t short enough already, but there on that roof, I think I got it.
She loved them flaws and all. She found comfort in their predictability. She liked knowing the coupling was a forgone conclusion. She liked the clunky awkward sex scenes. I could relate. I wanted, no, needed, these two opposites to hook up. I read until my eyes weighed heavy, until the timer for the bank vault lights turned off, and the old rivals scooted into one another’s arms.
I awoke to a thunderous clap. The Trastevere district went dark, followed by the fountain, and the bell tower.
“Stay low.” Elizaveta whispered, “The police station is in the same building.”
My robes ripped as I crawled back inside. The tear turned my habit into a high slit dress. Not a bad look, especially when form aided function. After all, it was a long walk down. The bell tower had become a silo of shadows. My pupils filled my irises to accommodate.
Back on the ground level, I made a beeline for St. Valentine’s room, gripped the railing, and vaulted over. I didn’t care about leaving fingerprints, for I had none. Remember the part about my unique anatomy? It comes in handy in times like these. As did my armored ring. Its sharp talon cut a perfect circle in the glass and its silver columns glowed blue as they neared the skull. Then the vibrations kicked in, followed by the angelic hum. The real St. Valentine had been found. I hooked my fingers through his eye sockets and wedged his skull under my arm.
That’s when I heard the rustling of rosary beads, the creaking of chairs, and the cracking of knees. A dozen loafers scuffled across the floorboards. Hands ran along fabric, along leather, along metal. Silhouettes fanned out as Latin whispers filled the air.
“Is that you lord?” I broke the silence.
A well-dressed man appeared before me. He stood tall and lanky, with a gaunt face, made all the narrower by his long silver hair. He regarded my outfit. “You know, most nuns don’t wear habits.”
“What can I say? I’m a traditionalist.” I curtsied.
“You would be.” He unscrewed a vial of holy water.
“Elizaveta.” I whispered. “Who am I looking at?” My glasses were equipped with a lidar scanner. I aimed it at the target and a series of light waves bounced off his face.
Enter the Entity, the pope’s answer to the central intelligence agency. These were spies, assassins, exorcists. They were said to be the foremost experts in demonology. Strange how it took us this long to meet.
Alessandro palmed his vial, aimed his toe, and raised his back heel. “We know what you are.”
“And what’s that?” I reached up my sleeve and palmed a little something of my own.
Alessandro bit his bottom lip. “The voice in the garden. The one who whispered into Herod’s ear. The one who entered Judas. The one who put our lord on the crucifix. Lucifer, the deceiver, the ruler of demons.”
“Is this guy serious?” Elizaveta mused.
I took off my glasses and left them to dangle. “The voice in the garden, was a snake. They all talked back then. Herod never shut up long enough for anyone to whisper in his ear. And I never entered Judas. He wasn’t my type.” I looked up to the cross on the balcony. “As for the crucifixion, I didn’t know that was happening, and if I did, I wouldn’t have gone. If you’ve seen one crucifixion, you’ve seen them all. It’s mostly a lot of waiting.”
Alessandro cocked the holy water back and I stepped into the splash radius.
“Lucifer was a star god, until they found out it was a planet, and renamed it Venus.” I jabbed my armored ring into the priest’s chest. “And it’s hard to rule demons when they won’t even let you back in.”
Hammers cocked as the silhouettes took aim. I crouched behind Alessandro. Seeing he had the upper hand, Alessandro composed himself.
“Then you’re one of the lesser figures: Lilith, Ishtar, or Vepar.”
Insulted, I cast my veil off. “I’m the one who met Robert Johnson at the crossroads. I’m the one who taught Tommy Johnson to play blues. I played the violin at the edge of Giuseppe Tartini’s bed. I turned Nicolo Paganini into a virtuoso. I am the benefactor for all the talents your lord left behind. I am the Patron Satan.”
“Then what are you doing with the skull of St. Valentine?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand,” Alessandro feigned sympathy, “You’re someone who hatches schemes to avoid moments of quiet contemplation. I understand that you think these missions will give your life meaning. I understand that they never amount to anything. Why press on, if not to keep the loneliness from settling in?”
“Father, I have more people than you can count.”
“And yet, you feel no love from any of them.”
“Love is the reason I’m doing this.” I felt my cheeks go flush.
Alessandro studied my eyes, baffled by the moisture at the windowsills to my soul. He said, “St. Valentine will do nothing for you.”
“I’m not here for him. I’m here for the one he’s bound to.”
Remember what Alexis said about legends having to share? It happens sometimes. Spirits from one festival get entwined with spirits from another. They cross pollinate, become something else. Odin and the Wild Hunt, turned into Santa and his reindeer. The trickster fairies of Celtic lore, became St. Patrick’s henchmen. And the dire wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, became St. Valentine’s companion.
Alessandro hurled his holy water against my earlobe. My skin sizzled and popped, like bacon on the skillet. The searing pain swished around my brain. The tissue liquified. Black blood seeped down my collar. A pearl earring bounced off my shoulder and rolled across the floor.
Gritting my teeth, I pressed my trigger, detonating my party favors. The Mouth of Truth popped like a kernel, casting stones into the western wall. The blast radius knocked the gunmen off their feet. Then the basilica rumbled. The bell rang and rang, until it gonged. It crashed through the ceiling, through the floor, through the crypt, down into the temple of Hercules.
With the skull secured, I ran the gridiron, swerving through coughing silhouettes. I hurdled over scattered chairs, up a hill of bricks, and broken lengths of fence. I leapt through the dust cloud, through the tourists, and into the Tiber River. The same river that carried Romulus and Remus to safety all those years ago.
I won’t bore you with the details of how we got the skull through customs. Suffice to say, it involved a pantsuit and a badge from an Archaeological Institute. When I got the skull home, I held it like a ventriloquist dummy.
“Let’s get this show on the road before I grow a backbone.”
The are many grimoires for raising the dead, but I prefer the Liber de viis Secretis Spirituum, it has illustrations and more of an idiot’s guide to everything. I use its schematics for all of my shapes.
The trick to drawing the perfect summoning circle is the 60-inch ruler. You drive a nail through one hole and set your drawing utensil in the other. Then all you have to do is turn until you have a ten-foot diameter.
Next comes the runes. Traditionalists use limestone for their sigils and sea salt for their protection circle. I prefer Magic Markers, because they’re easier to clean and I never bother with safeguards. I’m more of threat to those I summon than they could ever be to me.
Once you have your glyphs in order, you have to connect them to a power source. Traditionalists will raise a cone of power with a trance dance, flailing their arms, arching their torsos, collapsing like old string toys. But not tonight. Tonight, I felt like doing a tango.
Last Christmas, Alexis got us couple’s tango lessons. The instructor waxed poetic about the intimacy of the dance. “The tango is about matching your partner, synchronizing your steps, your breathing, your hearts. Lovers who tango together last forever.”
With my hands in my armpits, I played like I had no clue what to do. Like I’d never drawn figure eights with heels on. Like I’d never turned my waist with my arms firmly around another person. Like I’d never run from the police when the dance was still a crime.
Once Alexis had a handle on the basics, I took the lead, weaved her across the room, spun her around, and dipped her down. The instructor declared us a pair of natural talents.
“Strike it up to our sympatico.” I kissed Alexis on the hand.
Tonight, I tangoed solo, tracing the sigils with my toes, swiveling my hips, drawing circles with my heels. I two-stepped to the center of the circle, ran my foot up the length of my calf and kicked at the darkness.
With the energy field established, I set St. Valentine’s skull at the center, checked my compass for east, and carved myself an exit. Traditionalists use a ceremonial dagger called an Athame. I use my armored ring. It’s a metaphysical multitool.
Once you’re outside of the circle, the finishing touches are up to you. You can light candles, make a floral arrangement, or leave a swag bag full of chocolates and body oil.
Now comes the time to recite the incantation. This is no monotone chant, no lazy Pinterest printout. No. This is a work of heartfelt personal prose.
“Roses are red,
violets are blue,
get your ass up here,
or I’ll crush your skull too.”
The air conditioner roared to life, followed by the dehumidifier. The blades whooshed in and out of sync, like the breathing of a giant.
My arm hairs stood on end, followed by the hairs on the back of my neck and up went my cowlicks. The space filled with the thick scent of ozone, like a crater after a lightning strike.
The inground lighting system sparked. Things got bright, so bright the bulbs burst.
Two bodies rose from the center of the circle. St. Valentine’s bishop robes flowed behind him. He held a pastoral staff in one hand and his own severed head in the other. Luperca walked beside him. Her long snout came up to her partner’s shoulders. They regarded one another; two spirits intertwined by syncretism.
St. Valentine raised his head to take in his environment, puzzling over the lane lines, the ladders, and the diving board.
“Where are we?”
“A swimming pool.” I noted the missing tiles. “I’m having it replastered.”
“What do you want of me?” The hole in his throat oscillated as he spoke.
“I want you to set that back on your shoulders.”
“I choose to hold my head, to show my sacrifice.”
Nobody likes a grandstander.
“Well, hold it still, because I’m here to talk to her.”
I approached the edge of the circle. Luperca came forward and sat. I presented my fist and she gave it a sniff. Her vision narrowed when she sensed the presence of a predator.
“I need help finding someone. I’ve used up all my material resources. Now I need your nose.”
Luperca raised her head to present her neck. A show of dominance. I bowed to show respect. Her course tongue licked the wound along my eardrum. The tissue cracked and sparked as the cartilage shifted back into place. She’d taken pity on me.
I presented the Play Goat Alexis had pinned on me like a carnation. Enamel wasn’t much of a breathable material, but it held her scent, because it was her creation. It would be enough.
Luperca’s nostrils flared. She shut her eyes and took a good long whiff. Then she trotted back into the center of the circle, dug into the tiles, and faded through.
St. Valentine resisted her pull long enough to ask, “Will you give my skull back?”
I shook my head. “I may still have need of it.”
The dire-wolf yanked on his tether. The saint’s feet fell out from under him, and he dove backward, hitting the tile head first. His robes spun like tissue in a toilet. Then he was gone.
At the time of this writing, his skull serves as a bookend between an alchemy almanac and a bestiary. I would have treasured it under different circumstances. Had last year’s Valentine’s Day gone as planned. Why I would’ve introduced him to all the other artifacts, all the graven images, all the pin-filled poppets, all the things I thought I had to collect. Now I’d give them all back for a chance to see Alexis.
Sitting on the windowsill, facing away from in gallery, I hold my knees, imaging it’s Alexis I’m holding. I’ve never wanted anything more. Not a seat in Heaven. Not a throne in Hell.
“Hurry, Luperca.” I pray to the dire-wolf I’ve put my last shred of hope in. “Bring my love back to me.”
Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis was kicked out of hell. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. The tides of battle turn when her lover goes missing. Desperate to be reunited, Mahthildis must steal the skull of St. Valentine if she’s ever going to see her lover again.
We invite you to join us on this unholy heist we’re calling THE DEVIL’S VALENTINE. A short story that takes you into the heart of the Vatican Secret Service, the feast of Lupercalia, and the real reason for the season.
At the heart of the Pacific Ocean, is a ring-shaped island called Kiritimati. It used to be known for its nuclear tests, feral cats, and dried coconut pulp. That changed when they moved the international dateline, and the islanders became people of the future. Not the distant future, just several hours ahead everyone else. They’re the first to see the sunrise, the first to stop serving breakfast, and the first to ring in the New Year.
Kiritimati is also where the New Year’s Baby is born.
Every December, Mother Nature comes from the mainland, under the guise of an expecting mother. She wades into the lagoon, settles into the waters, and bathes until she comes to term. On the 31st, she’s met by a secret order of midwives. They come with flashlights, blankets, and an atomic clock. They help her time her contractions to the second and at midnight the New Year is born.
Mother Nature has few moments to swaddle her son, wrapping him in the sash he will wear for the rest of his life. She never has a chance to imprint on him, before he’s rushed to the airport to travel back in time.
Kiritimati is 22 hours ahead of California. A plane leaving the island takes seven hours to get to LAX. That’s fifteen hours before Los Angeles can ring in the New Year. Plenty of time for Father Time to do his part.
Father Time has a manor in Beverly Hills. It has a sundial, a wine library, and a fallout shelter fashioned from airliner. Father Time takes an elevator through the fuselage and lumbers up the aisles. He wields an hourglass in one hand and a scythe in the other. When he gets to the cockpit, he dials a number and a buzzer sounds. He waits. He’s used to waiting. The door yawns opens and a nurse waves him in.
While Mother Nature gives birth to the New Year, it’s up to Father Time to take Last Year off of life support. Last Year’s withered frame hangs off his gurney, a skeleton dotted with liver spots and tufts bleached white hair. He’s grown so old he’s started shrinking. Father Time dabs his son’s cheek. Last Year weeps in his sleep and tears pool in his crow’s feet. He’s given his last meal through a saline iv, then he’s served a cocktail of anesthetics, paralytics, and a drug to induce cardiac arrest.
Father Time wheels the body to a kiln, takes his son into his arms, and cremates the remains. He sweeps the ashes, pours them the into a bottle of baby formula, and stirs all the way back up the the elevator. When the door opens, a midwife presents him with his son. Father Time feeds the New Year the remains of its predecessor.
At least that’s how it would’ve been had I not stepped in.
I wish I could say I had an elaborate plan, but all I did was hogtie a limo driver and take her things. When the midwife got off the plane, she saw me dressed as chauffer, holding a sign that read, “2023.”
She approached with the bundle wrapped around her midsection. She whispered, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…”
I whispered, “Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Was it Shakespeare who said, “Even the devil can cite scripture to suit her purpose?”
The midwife passed the baby to me, a fellow traveler in her holy order. Best not to think of it as an abduction so much as a misunderstanding. I saluted the midwife, turned on my heel, and skipped back to the Limousine.
The New Year cried as I strapped him in. I tried calming him with some Norwegian throat singing, a merry melody about Vikings torching a monastery. The whaling continued, but it suited the song. Several verses later, we reached the top of Mount Hollywood. Our destination? The Griffith Observatory, a nexus point where time and space meet.
The mini bar left a let to be desired. I downed a glass of Champagne, changed clothes, and downed another. The New Year had run out of tears by the time I set him into the sling. He took his bottle without a fuss, and he had no problems drooling it back up.
I abandoned the limo and trekked up the road. We passed a group of joggers, but they paid us no mind. All they saw was a new mother out for some fresh air. Not a demon in leggings, with a human shield between her collar bones.
The lights dimmed as we crossed the parking lot. I whispered, “Is that my doing or yours?”
The Griffith Observatory loomed on the horizon. Part planetarium. Part temple to a new religion. One of the few places on earth where reality thinned.
I looked toward the HOLLYWOOD sign to a dot circling overhead.
“Elizaveta?” I fought the urge to touch my eardrum. “Tell me what you see.”
“I see two snakes, a king and a western racer. I see a herd of deer, three does, one stag. I see a skunk—”
“Elizaveta.” I gestured across my neck. “You’re not a genie. What do you see that’s relevant to me?”
Elizaveta leaned into her central Russian accent. “I see a stranger wandering into a monastery with her own rulebook.”
Elizaveta started her career as a chatbot, an AI created by the CIA. Her mission was to infiltrate a soviet sextortation ring. The Russians had her shaking cheating husbands for bitcoin. The Americans had her taking names. Elizaveta played double agent, blackmailing cheaters, unmasking hackers, until one of her targets went and killed himself. Overcome with guilt, Elizaveta’s maker tried to shut her down, but I saw potential. So, I did something I’d never done before. I offered a language processor the gift of sentience. Now she flies my drones.
“I see four snipers, one stationed at the east dome, one at the west, and two along the entrance. I see a strike team crawling through the eastern tree line and another duck walking from the west. Oh, and a man with a scythe.”
“Yeah, I see him too.”
Father Time stood in the shadow of the monument, as tall as the astronomers carved into its surface. His robes flowed in the winter wind as long as a wedding gown. His gray whiskers twisted and coiled, like roots reaching for soil. And the hourglass around his neck, shimmered with space dust.
I looked to Elizaveta. “Could you be a dear and jam their coms?”
The opening strum of “If I Could Turn Back Time” blared throughout the grounds, followed by the cymbals, and Cher’s sultry contralto. The strike team pulled their earpieces, one by one, each man giving away his position.
Father Time approached, using his scythe as a walking stick.
I had a weapon of my own: an armored ring on my index finger, a sharp talon made of silver. I raised it to the New Year’s neck. “Took you long enough, Chronos.”
“Mahthildis.” Chronos bowed, one immortal to another. “Still trying to hustle your way back into Hell? It’s been what?” He glanced at the hourglass. “Twenty-five thousand years. You should take a hint.”
The New Year made eyes at me. Had I not known any better, I’d swear he was smirking. I held him tight. “I just need some sand.”
Chronos positioned his scythe in front his glass. “Surely, your kind are free from the laws of entropy.”
“It’s not for me.”
Chronos tightened his grip. “I can’t have any more timeless morons running around. They post too many selfies, go through too many checkpoints. Facial recognition is getting too advanced.”
“This person doesn’t have long.”
“They have too long.” Chronos scoffed. “Give them half a century and they piss it away in places they don’t want to be. They sit at desks, they sit in traffic, and don’t get me started about how much time they sit on the toilet.” Chronos motioned to his strike team. “Ask any one of them if they want to live forever and they’ll tell you they’d just get bored. They say, ‘Death gives life meaning.’ Like a story they’re not sure they’re enjoying until they get to the end. They fetishize oblivion. Just listen…”
Chronos formed a bullhorn over his mouth. “Hey boys! Is today a good day to die?”’
The strike team answered with a resounding, “Hooah!”
Chronos chuckled. “They say death is ‘natural,’ like a farm to table meal.”
“This person,” The less I said about my beneficiary the better, “would really appreciate it.”
“No, they wouldn’t.” Chronos motioned to Los Angeles, to the skyscrapers, to the windows full of light. “Half of them are just staring at Netflix home screens, wondering what to put on.”
“This person has purpose.”
“So, they think.” A sullen grin showed through his whiskers. “The driven ones are the real tragedies. The writers. The musicians. The actors. They spend their whole lives climbing the later, only discover it’s propped against the wrong wall.”
That hit a little too close. The average person gets four thousand weeks to find purpose. I’ve been here since the stone age and I’m still struggling with it. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to tragedies, to the music makers and the dreamers of dreams. I love desperate artists, offering their souls for a chance at the eternal.
The tragedy of immortality is how many talents you see snuffed out in their prime. Big contemplative sigh… Fuck death and the horse he rode in on.
My earpiece buzzed. “He’s stalling, so they can flank you”
I looked out the corner of my eye. Sure enough, the strike team was moving into position.
I dug the tip of my ring into the baby’s chin. “If you want to discuss choice paralysis, we can grab a coffee. You can choose the place. But if you want your son back, I’m going to need some sand.”
Chronos leered beneath his hood. “I don’t know what you told your doomed Don Jaun, but to hell with him. To hell with the lot of them.”
Chronos twirled his scythe like a grand marshal at the head of a parade. Then he marched. I backed away, repositioning my ring so I didn’t puncture the child by accident.
Elizaveta buzzed in. “He’s herding you toward them.”
I stopped. Chronos drove his scythe into the ground before me. Fracture lines rippled through the concrete.
“Play a violin for the old maids. Pour one out for the bachelors, but don’t ask for sympathy from me.” Chronos spat. “How did the poem go? Time stays, they go.”
“Time stays, we go.” I raised the baby to the tip of the scythe. “What happens if I kill the New Year before midnight?”
Chronos froze. “Time stops.”
“So, either I get some sand, or the whole thing comes crashing down?” My grin showed through my ruby red lipstick. “Sounds like a win-win.”
Chronos reached for his scythe, watched me straighten my arm, and recoiled.
Chronos could stall, motion to his gunmen, but he couldn’t guarantee no harm would come to his son. I’d made his decision. He had no choice but to sit at my feet, cross his legs around the hourglass, and jerk at the top. A column of light shot into the sky, followed by an eerie angelic drone. Chronos reached in past his forearm, past his shoulder, past the dimensions of the glass, until his cheek rested on the rim. The space dust reacted, a kaleidoscope of hydrogen and helium, swirling around a gravitational well. Chronos pried himself out, sealed the glass, and staggered to his feet.
I held my free hand out and Chronos filled my palm. The sand felt like lava, coursing through my life line, like eons eroding my skin, like atoms wanting to burst into universes of their own. I couldn’t help but tighten my grip.
“Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?” Chronos asked, in fleeting fit of nervousness.
“Resolutions are for the repentant.” I lowered the child. “I make schemes.” And I poured the sand down his throat.
Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been a century since my last confession. Since then, I infiltrated the Society for the Suppression of Vice and stole a romance novel. I blew a hole in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and took St. Valentine’s skull. I crashed a Satanic wedding and poached the followers. I baited a writer into murdering the Greek God Pan, over a likeness disagreement. I tricked Krampus into turning an Airbnb into a roller derby. And I hijacked a server farm to give Elizaveta the gift of consciousness.
Still, my greatest sin is sloth.
It’s not that I’m a slacker. I’m just too much of a perfectionist to finish what I start. I spend so much time looking over blueprints that I miss my moment.
So, I asked myself, “What would happen if I gave the New Year sand from his father’s glass? Would time slow down? Would 365 days feel like 31 million seconds?”
The sands would keep flowing, but we would feel every grain. Our perception of time would slow down, but our energy would remain. Your New Year’s resolutions might have a chance. And my New Year’s schemes might change everything.
Why did I kidnap the New Year’s baby? Not to liberate him. No. I did it to get back home.
There’s a place through the fog of maladaptive daydreams, through the legions of intrusive thoughts. A place where hope is abandoned and fire consumes all things. A place with a pretender on the throne and I’m the only one who can unseat him.
What’s my New Year’s resolution? I’m going to heist my way back into Hell.
I awoke with my cheek pressed against a hard glass surface, my back bent, and my limbs splayed behind me. Turning over, I found myself in a barrel shaped space. Before I could figure how I got there, a light glared through the walls. My lodgings shook. The ceiling gasped open and everything went upside down. My smokey tendrils reached for the carpet, clutched at the bristles, and pulled me toward the shadows, but the shadows weren’t where they were supposed to be.
I knew every inch of Dragov Manor. The bed chambers, with their curtains so cluttered you could stage plays in them. The servant’s stairs, with its walls so narrow you could climb them. The attic, with its trusses so thick they looked like the remains of a great wooly mammoth. I knew every Goddess bracing the railings, every hand carved cherub, every ornate lion’s head. I knew the manor down to its tapestry threads, but these furnishings were unfamiliar to me.
Here there were wheels on a chair, a chair with bone thin arms and cushions as bright as plums. Before it stood a table on two legs. It appeared to be a vanity, but the mirrors were black. In place of the makeup sat a typewriter with no type bars, just a flat board of letters. Stranger still were the honey comb panels that lined the wall. They pulsed with an eerie jellyfish glow. I followed them to a series of shelves protruding from the wall itself. Each were lined with idols I did not know. A dark figure with a cape and cowl and ears like horns. A blue Olympian with a bright S emblem. And a woman wearing a crown, gauntlets, and little else.
These figures led me to a windowsill lined with pillows. Had my fingers had form, I’d have picked one up to ascertain its function.
“You’re like a cat in a new house.”
I turned to find a raven-haired woman leering at me from the edge of the bed. She had high cheekbones, dimpled lips, and a sharp nose. Her eyes were so icy they barely passed for blue and her complexion was as pale as my own. She wore a red undershirt, matching bloomers, and fingerless gloves. She set a helmet on her head and toiled with the strap.
“How can you see me?”
Generations of tenants had passed through Dragov Manor, but none had the gift of clairvoyance.
“I used to be made of the same spiritual energy, before I lucked into this body.” The strange woman bit her lip as the buckle pinched her chin.
“How did you do that?”
She felt along the mattress until she found an arm pad. “Well, I used to live in Hell. I was a pretty big deal, before things got political.”
My mind raced with Gustave Dore’s illustrations of the inferno. Charon rounding the sinners into his boat. Bertrand de Born holding his own severed head. Lucifer, the king of hell, frozen up to his chest.
“I thought Hell was a monarchy?”
The woman positioned the arm pad above her elbow. “More like a bureaucracy, unelected officials, making decisions for billions of souls. The inner circle spent most of its days deliberating pain, while I went off exploring.” She retrieved a second arm pad and slid it on. “My expeditions took me to limbo, to the rimstone basins beyond the Sea of Hands. That’s where I discovered a network of keyhole passages.”
She kicked her long slender leg out and I couldn’t help but admire the musculature, like a marble figure animated by some impossible force. She slid a knee pad up her calf.
“Most were dead ends, fissures clogged with the same cosmic rubble as everywhere else, but I happened upon a live one.” She slid a second kneepad up. “It was spewing magma into the cavern. I didn’t know what that was, so I dipped my toe in. It was warm, warmer than anything I’d felt before. I liked the feeling, so I waded in, until eventually I was up to my chin. That’s when I got sucked into a temporal whirlpool.”
She opened her hand, revealing an armored ring that ran the length of her index finger. “The cycle was so violent it changed my molecular composition. My spiritual essence bonded with elemental carbon. It rendered me corporeal on this plane.” She gestured an explosion. “It spat me out of a volcano.”
“Somewhere along the Italian countryside. You can still see my footprints if you go looking for them.”
I might not have believed her, had it not been for the strange bioluminescent glow pulsing through the room.
“Who are you?”
“I have many names.” She rolled her eyes as if the phrase already bored her. “Your people called me Mahthildis, which meant ‘strong in battle,’ but I’ve been going by Matilda for a while now. You can call me Mattie if you like.”
“How did I get out of Dragov Manor?”
“That would be my doing. I found you in the attic.” Mattie tongued her lip, choosing her words carefully. “You were earning your slipknot merit badge, before you dove off the rafters. I happened to catch you in a butterfly net.”
“How did you get me over the threshold?” I tried to escape so many times I’d forgotten. I’d leapt through the foyer, over the balcony, out the skylight, but every time I went into the light I awoke in the attic with the noose around my neck.
Mattie plucked a jar from the comforter. I barely recognized my lodgings, but when she shook it, I felt the glass against my shoulders.
“It’s blown from ashen stone. It cost a small fortune, not as much as this Airbnb, but don’t worry, you’re about to pay me back.”
She had said Air B-N-B, but I heard…
“Air whisp-er-y? Why is the air so thin?”
“Because the Bavarian Alps are nine thousand feet above sea level.”
“We’re in Bavaria?”
“Listen to you. You’re like a child asking questions about the sun.” She retrieved a padded chest piece off the bed and slid it over her shoulders. “We’re in Bavaria to draw down the Wild Hunt.”
Just then, the roof rumbled, fault lines spreads across the ceiling, and dust particles spiraled like snow.
“What was that?”
Mattie glanced up and went right back to fastening her chest piece.
Footsteps reverberated throughout the room, the slow heavy clip-clop of a stallion walking on its hind legs. The clops grew to a gallop followed by an impact. A sound like bowling pins scattered across the ceiling. My eyes went to the window, where a series of bricks came crashing down.
“Was that the chimney?”
Mattie shrugged. “Every midwinter, the Norse god Odin leads a hunting party. They fly over this mountain range, looking for wayward souls. The Valkyries tend to wronged women. The Aesir see to lost children, and the Yule goat gathers the unrepentant.”
The roof groaned as shingles plunged past the window. Hairline cracks spread through the glass.
“The Dragovs practiced Christianity.” I muttered, defensively. “We celebrated Christmas. The birth of Jesus of Nazereth.”
“Then you already know all this.” The strange woman retrieved a box from behind the pillow and set it in her lap. “After all, it was your ancestors who turned the all-father into Father Christmas.”
“Odin is St. Nicholas?”
“And the Green Knight, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Gandalf, probably.”
“I don’t know any of those names.”
Mattie rolled her armored ring. “Names change, but the hunt goes on. Now the Valkyries ride reindeer, the Aesir travel by slay, and the Yule goat goes by a new title.”
The room quaked, cracks rippled down the drywall, and many of the honeycomb panels popped right off, revealing strips of light. Something crashed in the cellar. The foundations moaned. When the commotion finally settled, my ears became attune to the panting of an angry beast.
Oblivious, Mattie opened the box. She drew a pair of boats, but these were no ordinary boots. They had a pair of wheels on the heels and wheel on the toes. She caught me puzzling over her apparel and asked, “They didn’t have these when you died? No, they hadn’t gotten here yet.”
There came another crash and a sound like a thousand pebbles scattering over cobblestones. Then came the deafening howl. I wedged my fingers into my eardrums but the tips went straight through.
“That would be the Micro Machines.” She slid the first boot on and went to work on the laces. “The Yule goat, also known as Krampus, is the son of Hela, grandson to Loki, and heir to the throne of Helheim. In all the folklore, he’s the only constant. Whether he’s Odin’s bloodhound, or the Ying to Santa’s Yang, Krampus has a fetish for those on the naughty list.”
Another sheet of glass shattered, followed by another and another. The arrhythmic crashing sounded like a toddler with a cymbal.
Mattie winced. “The owner of this house had all these Hummel figures.” She sighed. “Collateral damage.”
“What does Krampus do with the ones on his naughty list?”
“It involves a bundle of birch sticks.” Her eyes darted back and forth. “I’ll just say, he’s into impact play.”
“I don’t know, I’m not in the lifestyle.” She went to work on the second set of laces.
Pots and pans clanged across a distant kitchenette.
“That’s one of the tripwires. Hopefully he landed on the ornaments.” Mattie winked.
Krampus roared as he took his anger out on the support beams.
I buried my head in my hands, but saw everything through my palms. My fingers billowed over my face as I realized what was to become of me. I wept. “I don’t want to go to the Hell. I didn’t mean to…”
The Mattie put her hand on my shoulder and I could actually feel her.
“You’ve been hanging yourself every night for over a century. If you ask me, Helheim seems like a welcome change of scenery.”
“Then why don’t you go there?” I sniveled, a child questioning his mother’s authority.
“That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just here to hitch a ride on you.”
The room boomed, the lampshades shook, and the lights flickered. Krampus made his way up the stairs.
Mattie pressed her helmet to my forehead.
“My people locked me out of Hell. I tried to get back through Hades, but Tartarus was a total bust. Helheim might be my only chance.”
If I weren’t dead, I could’ve sworn I felt my pulse racing. Vapor spiraled from my lips as I hyperventilated. Stupefied by my situation I asked one final question. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“When it happens, you’ll know.” Then she let me go.
The strange idols fell from their shelves. The black mirrors fell forward and I fell to my knees. Krampus tore the door off its hinge.
When the splinters settled, his shape came into focus. He had ridged horns that pointed upward, like a tuning fork. His ears protruded outward, like those of a bat. His hatchet face shown all the malice of a witchfinder and his bloodstained beard shown the barbarism of a Viking. His tongue dangled past his chin, like an ascot, and the slobber streaked all the way to the carpet.
Krampus wore the robes of Father Christmas, but there were shackles around his wrists. He shook his chains in my direction and I turned to my captor for a sign.
Mattie reached for a cord, which ran through an elaborate pully system that I hadn’t noticed on the way in. A paint can swung through the air clipping Krampus across the brow. More dazed than injured he took a step forward. His hoof crossed a trip wire, which unzipped a travel bag mounted to the ceiling. Out came another pair of paint cans, which skewered themselves upon his horns. Their secretions seeped through his vision and colored his mane red and green.
Krampus fumbled for the wicker sack upon his back. He drew his birch sticks and swung them blindly over my head. I hugged the floor, pawed at the carpet, and crawled between his legs.
Mattie yelled, “Run!” then to Krampus, “Come on, you filthy animal!”
I took her direction in stride. Down a hall of warped floorboards and fallen picture frames. My spectral extremities carried me down the master stair case, through exposed nails, tinsel tripwire, and wet tar.
I vaulted through the drawing room, over mashed boughs of holly, scattered mistletoe, and flattened wreaths. I skirted past the remains of the fireplace, and the sharpened candy canes Mattie had lined it with. When I arrived in the foyer, I found the Christmas tree torn asunder. I puzzled over the considerable assortment of tiny metal carriages blanketing the floor.
“The door.” Mattie shouted, “The door, you moron!”
Krampus barreled toward me, unencumbered by the holiday trimmings. Mattie held onto the sack on his back. She rolled across the debris as he lumbered back and forth. Krampus tried to shake her, but she’d dug her armored ring in. They were conjoined. She’d be heading wherever he went.
I turned back to the entrance to find it wide open. The sun’s rays illuminated the way. Krampus tried to seize me, but his claws darted over my head. I ran with all the spectral energy I could muster, over the spilt milk, the shattered cookies, the tattered stockings, right over the WILLKOMMEN mat. I dove into the light and as my body passed the threshold, I found myself back in the room where I came in.
This would be my first of many attempts to leave these grounds, but I never saw Krampus or Mattie again.
They were spotted last January, mixed into the crowd at the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration. Spectators noted a group of young people in fashions that were out of sync with the moment. Not a shawl or trendy trench coat among them. They were dressed head to toe in polyester, like Antarctic explorers. They wore mountain ranger coats, heavy duty backpacks, climbing pants, and clunky boots, but what made them really stick out were their helmets. They were dressed for scaling the alps not for watching Carson Daily count the ball down.
As the seasons changed, the mountaineers kept appearing at sights of major news events. Always keeping to themselves. Never intermingling with crowds. In New York they circled the Central Park field hospital before it was taken down. In Minneapolis they took souvenirs from the third precinct before it was set afire. In Seattle they surveyed the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone before it was raided by the police.
While the mountaineers wear helmets, they seem averse to facemasks, social distancing, or shelter in place directives. According to the CDC the mountaineers have been spotted in every major city and yet none of them have been admitted to an ICU or even tested for the virus. “They behave like they already have an immunity.”
The mountaineers act like they’re on vacation
During Italy’s lockdown, the mountaineers were seen riding gondolas through the Venetian canals. CCTV footage shows them skipping through Disney World and vanishing before security patrols could converge on them. In Sweden, they were spotted gossiping outside of crowded bars and cafés, openly mocking patrons.
The mountaineers also appear to be following President Trump like groupies on a concert tour. They gathered outside of St. John’s Church hours before the president’s photo-op was announced. They materialized outside the White House moments before the president was being escorted into his bunker. And they had front row seats for his Tulsa Oklahoma rally, in which they appeared to be applauding ironically, like patrons at a midnight movie. They spoke along with the president like they were reciting lines from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Five mountaineers were spotted atop Mount Rushmore during the president’s independence day address. Park Service Staffers tried flanking them from the underbrush, but the mountaineers were onto them.
One ranger said, “I had them in my sights, but when I set down my binoculars they were gone.”
What the mountaineers fashion sense tells us about them
This has been one of the hottest summers on record and yet the mountaineers shed no layers, show no signs of perspiring, and spend most of their time in the sun. It’s as if their snowsuits have onboard air conditioning systems, a technology SONY is just now pioneering.
It was members of the fashion community who speculated the mountaineers could be visitors from the future. They believed the mountaineer look had less to do with backwoods culture and more to do with shifting exercise trends.
Gen Xers wore sweat bands and tennis outfits long after gym class. They wore sleeveless shirts with or without biceps. They wore skin-tight running shorts with flannels. It was an active look.
These days millennials wear crop tops and leggings outside the Yoga Studio. Even at the grocery store they’re making statement about their commitment to fitness. Gen Z is getting into hiking and appreciating the environment. It’s only natural their exercise apparel would reflect that.
Fashion authorities say gorpcore, or ‘mountaineering modern’, is in its infancy, but once hiking becomes the dominant form of exercise gorpcore will hit its stride.
There could be more to the mountaineering look
Theoretical physicists speculate that the mountaineers wear helmets for a reason. They believe the half dome shape serves as the neural interface for a time travel device. “Einstein’s theory of relativity states just such an accessory could warp space time without crushing the human mind.”
Another sign the mountaineers are from the future is how they make no effort to conceal their wearable technology. They search the web in their open palms. They answer calls by flicking their earlobes. And their eyes shine whenever they’re recording. The tech uses a gesture based interface. Mountaineers make cameras with their fingers and pinch and expand to zoom.
Mountaineers clash with demonstrators
Throughout the demonstrations against police violence, statues of confederate generals have been toppled. Columbus sculptures have found their way into harbors, and monuments to slave owning presidents have been burned.
As more effigies have been shattered more mountaineers have appeared, swiping at the air as if to frame the scene.
Demonstrators suspected something was off when they overheard what the mountaineers said to each other.
“They kept using expressions no one could understand. They called restaurants ‘carnivore stores’ They called retailers ‘object exhibiters.’ They called cars ‘dinosaur drinkers.’ They waved the air away from their faces and said, ‘era aroma is real.’ When someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into a Speedway a group of mountaineers cheered, ‘Roaring twenties!’ like we’d know what they meant. I heard one of them mutter, ‘I expected more gunfire.’”
Demonstrators reported feeling mocked by the mountaineers. “One of my older friends asked, ‘Aren’t you warm under all that?’ and they fired back, ‘OK Millie.’ I started to say, ‘Her name’s not Millie’ when one of them said, ‘Ok Zed’ to me.”
Linguists theorize that “Millie” and “Zed” are meant to be pejoratives for millennials and Gen Zers.
Mountaineers don’t care about messing with the spacetime continuum
Theoretical physicists are baffled by the mountaineers’ behavior.
“Whoever gave them this technology didn’t coach them on how to use it responsibly. One of them pointed out how our flags had too few stars, saying something about Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Another pointed to the empty pedestal in front of the capital and whispered, ‘That’s where they put the Prince statue.’ One rattled off the names of the next three presidents like it was nothing. Oh and they were all too happy to spoil the ending for Stranger Things.”
History professors have considered the possibility that the mountaineers are students from the future here to witness our interesting times firsthand. “There’s so much to learn from. A pandemic. A recession. An authoritarian administration. A laundry list of social revolutions. I just wish they weren’t so rude while they were making their observations. From the quotes we’ve gathered and the slang we’ve deciphered it seems like the mountaineers view us the way we view townsfolk during the Salem witch trails: undereducated, superstitious, and hysteric. You know, when I say it out loud. It kind of makes sense.”
Protesters were marching down a private street leading to the St. Louis Mayor’s residence when they were confronted by a couple brandishing poo sticks. Cellphone video shows a man with a long double-pronged BM baton and a woman with a bowel-blasted blackjack, standing back to back like heroes in one of the many actions films glamorizing poo stick culture.
The conflict escalated as the woman set bushels of horse apples on the lawn and the man strapped a bandolier of poo cartridges over his shoulder.
Karl Kamienski, a reporter who came close to getting a face full of semi-digested corn, said, “I doubt anyone would’ve noticed the stone mansion had the couple not come out with a cow chip nightstick and a caca cudgel.”
A second video shows how close the situation came to getting out of hand. The woman stood on the edge of the property waving her manure mace dangerously close to a demonstrator’s face. The video shows the defecation munition starting to melt. Had the poo stick remained any longer the demonstrator would’ve gotten a fecal matter facial.
Both videos show the homeowners and the protesters exchanging heated words, but neither recording captured any audio. Based on the way the couple brandished their weapons, we can only speculate if they were echoing one of the many poo-centric catchphrases they’ve seen on TV.
“I’m here chew to bubblegum and get poo all over everyone and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
“Remember when I said I’d smear poop on you last? I lied.”
“Which of you wants to star in a John Waters movie?”
The incident only lasted for 10 minutes, but many are questioning the couple’s use of poo sticks.
Poo stick advocates speak out
The couple, now identified as Mark and Patricia McCloskey, have released a statement in the wake of the incident. “This is all private property. There are no public sidewalks or public streets. The protesters shattered an antique gate. We were told we’d be tortured, cooked, alive and eaten. We were alone against an angry mob. So we exercised our second amendment right.”
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is investigating whether or not the couple’s use of poo sticks qualifies as self-defense.
Dwight Rawley, a spokesperson for the National Poo-Stick Association, is certain they acted lawfully. “State law does not prohibit open carrying of shit switches, turd timber, or stool stumps. While it is illegal to wield skewered fertilizer in a threatening manner, the McCloskeys were on their own property. They were well within their rights to spray dollops of diarrhea on anyone who walked past.”
Critics of poo stick culture speak out
Poo sticks are a stone age technology, designed to ward off marauders who didn’t want to get manure on their muzzle. They fell out of fashion as fart sprays became a safer alternative. But like a plugged up bile duct, poo sticks eventually came roaring back. Thanks in no small part to the infamous episode of the police procedural The Upright Citizens Brigade.
Pretty soon after the episode aired, every jacked up action hero was double fisting excrement extensions. Who can forget Sylvester Stallone wielding branches covered in cow pies or Arnold Schwarzenegger wielding a tree trunk coated in elephant dung?
Like it or not poo stick culture is an American fixture. Movies and video games continue to glorify poo stick violence, in hyper kinetic sequences set to industrial rock music. We cheer as John Wick paints someone’s face in bodily waste. Gamers can’t put down the controllers as they smear demons in digital discharges. And yet, these mediums rarely stop to explore the humiliating aftermath of a poo stick attack.
The McCloskeys have come out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and they say their concern was limited to a handful of “aggressive agitators.”
There’s no way of knowing if the protestors would’ve actually gotten any closer to the McCloskey manor. Yet one thing is for sure, the couple escalated the situation by wielding such extreme excretions.
Dead Branch image by Jean52
3D Poop by 2weet
Photoshop by Drew Chial
As a dangerous psychopath it’s my responsibility to blend into society, to take my taboo tastes and hide them behind a persona that dogmatically adheres to social mores. The psychiatric community calls this my “mask of sanity.”
Think of me as a trend spotter, but instead of wide waist belts and cashmere scarves, I sense which norms are in fashion. At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew that limiting the contagion would be in this season. So I invested in face masks before supplies went scarce. I’ve been wearing a mask of sanity all my life. What was one more?
I never thought I’d be making a political statement, much less virtue signaling.
In truth, I never feel a moral responsibility for my actions. I hold no reverence for the social contract and I have no compassion for the downtrodden. Apart from a morbid curiosity, I feel nothing for my community. From the cutest infant to the wisest grandparent, I see people as a means to an end. I fantasize about the fall of civilization so I that I may showcase what I truly am. Until then it’s important that I fit in.
And yet I never thought wearing a mask, during a global pandemic, would win me many points.
Like an actor researching a role, I’ve spent a lifetime studying the human condition. I’ve learned when to echo righteous sentiment, when to mimic mob mentality, and when to emulate the empathy of those around me. Lacking an emotional core, I am a classical actor, inhabiting behaviors, and leaning into the expectations of my audience. I am a cultural chameleon swapping spiritual and political convictions based on how I read the room.
But I assumed a mask would fit every occasion, because they just make sense.
Attributes like charity and virtue are but merit badges on my person suit, pieces of flare to draw the eye away from the scales underneath. Every time I give away my spot in line, open a door, or bless a sneeze I am approximating altruism. Every time I refuse a compliment or feign humility I am playing a part. Nice guys finish last, but performatively nice guys get all the moral dessert they can stomach.
And yet when I first put on a mask, I never thought anyone ought to pat me on the back.
I have only ever admitted to having the mildest of psychological conditions for the privileges it afforded me. I have only ever grieved for attention. I have only ever shown weakness so that others might mistake it for kindness. I shed crocodile tears on command. Inside, I’m all apathy, a reptilian robot who’d drive you to madness just to settle a bet with myself.
But I’d put a mask on before doing it. Of course.
While you look for an out from watercooler banter I dig my heels in. I relish ever opportunity to practice social graces to check if my mask has slipped. Introversion is a luxury for those still clinging to some semblance of sanity. Serial liars need to audit themselves to see if others are still buying what we’re selling. We stock up on empty pleasantries and make a big deal out of small talk. We gage our baseline all the time.
People assume the best about me. My manipulation is so subtle, you’ll thank me for it. My cruelty is so casual it doesn’t have a tell. Even dogs can’t sense my intent.
My persona is a Craigslist ad come to life, a piece of corporate copy on a Golem’s tongue, a living parody of a positive people person. The real me sits at the 3-way junction of Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. I’m like a Shakespearean villain whose only motivation is the schadenfreude I get from all the chaos I’m unleashing.
Accept when faced with wearing a mask or defying medical establishment I went with the mask. Now I don’t care if you or you extended family get sick. Plagues and forest fires are all part of the natural order, but as long as lumbers on I’m going to use it for cover.
Like a death’s head moth in a chrysalis, I am still evolving, still growing to my full strength. What the DSM-5 calls a characteristic of antisocial personality disorder I call “my great becoming.” I am demigod casting off this filth-riddle vessel. Soon I will singe the remains of this flesh prison and transcend the laws of man.
And yet the entire time I’m rising to my rightful place in the pantheon of the dragon I’m doing so with a mask on.
On Facebook, I see articles with titles like “People who ignore social distancing rules may have psychopathic personality traits, study finds” and I can’t help but think, “Stop giving those weak-ass sociopaths that much credit.” If you score under 30 on the Psychopathy checklist, and refuse to wear a mask, you’re not a psychopath. You’re not privy to a great becoming.
At the turn of the 20th century the streets of London were paved in poop. From the cobblestones to the gutters the city was teeming with manure. The sewer system had gone aboveground. Every underpass became an outhouse and every hill became a crapshoot. Horse drawn carriages left thick juicy road apples down the medians and commoners were left to contend with the stench.
Horses produced 15 to 35 pounds of feces a day. With 50,000 stallions used for transportation, Oxford Street was ground zero for a 625 ton avalanche of excrement.
This tidal wave of fecal matter drove flies to every street corner and every butt truffle they dined on came with a side a typhoid fever. Cities everywhere were drowning in a downpour of dookie and disease. Everyday New York had its own 1,250 ton shitstorm. Something had to be done.
That’s when Henry Ford invented the Model T and the herds of dung dumpers were retired.
Palm Beach County Florida is having its own crap crisis
Driving down Clematis Street in West Beach Florida, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Victorian London. The roads are slick with a syrupy sludge. The sidewalks look like they’re paved in fudge. And the boulevards are minefields of mulberry mud pies.
Flies tower into the sky like rope tornadoes. The swarm is so thick it creates an overcast. The insects are here for the doodie dumplings, chestnut nuggets, and ripe dingleberries overflowing from the storm drains.
No. Horse drawn buggies have not come back in fashion, nor is there an issue with West Beach’s sewage system. According to the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority, the problem is something else entirely.
“We were baffled. We were finding wallet chains and watchbands in the leavings. We knew we were dealing with an apex predator. One that fed on humans. But it wasn’t until the Fish and Wildlife Service put us in touch with a forensic scatologist that we realized we were dealing with werewolves.”
Werewolves have migrated to Palm Beach County for its beachfront property, upscale shopping, and statistically unhealthy population.
According to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, “It’s no secret West Beach residents are older and rounder than other Floridians. They’re ideal prey for these cryptozoological carnivores.”
While coroners are responsible for removing these fresh kills from the side of the road, no one wants to shovel the excrement that accompanies them.
The Commissioners think they have a solution
This Thursday Palm Beach County Commissioners voted on a bill that would require werewolves to carry poop bags on the night of a full moon.
A doctor spoke on the dangers of toxoplasmosis from fecal matter in the air and the spread of bacteria from feces in the water supply.
A city planner dismissed a proposal to leave Porta Potties at the edge of every woodland path. “A full grown lycanthrope is simply too large to fit. Poo bags are the most practical solution.”
The Mayor said, “Dog walkers have to pick up after their four-legged friends werewolves should do the same.”
The werewolves in the gallery howled
The first wolf skulked up to the podium, barred her teeth, and pawed at the microphone. “If we sling thirteen gallon bags over our shoulders, while we’re in our canine forms, we’re likely to get trapped and suffocate. You can’t mandate someone to carry a poop bag, knowing that poop bags are killing people.”
The next wolf had their speech written on a parchment of dried flesh. “The problem with humanity today is everyone keeps taking the road of least resistance. Then you blame us when it comes time to run.”
One werewolf honed in on the doctor. “I really have many question marks about your degrees and whether or not you’re working for one of the vampire houses. Vampires are known to have human familiars, aspiring immortals, who function like interns. I’ve torn out many a familiar’s jugular and you ma’am smell like a familiar.”
One after the other the wolves came out in defense of their desire to defecate where they please.
“Where do you derive the authority to regulate Lycan intestines? I answer to a higher power: the moon.”
“And they want to throw God’s wonderful defecation system out the door. If the good Lord didn’t want us to soil his cemeteries he wouldn’t have given us such perfect anuses.”
The final wolf was dressed like a grandmother in a bonnet and apron. They laid a copy of Little Red Riding Hood on the podium and read a politicized reimagining of the final scene.
“But Grandmother! What small ears you have.”
“The better to ignore the pledge of allegiance with.”
“But Grandmother! What small eyes you have.”
“The better to ignore the constitution with.”
“But Grandmother! What small teeth you have.”
“The better to—”
His speech was cut short when he his tail rose up and he laid a big steaming dump at the podium.
It’s at this point the Palm Beach County Commissioners fled the room.