Demons aren't the only beings capable of possession...
|Robert whimpered, his body shivering in tiny, orgasmic spasms.|
The thing in his head smiled. It spoke to him in shuddering hisses and moans, gentle, coaxing sighs, and whispered reprimands of secret, unfathomable love.
Then it was silent, though he could feel it there, watching him, feeding him…
Wiping hot tears from his eyes, Robert found he was still on his knees in the rose garden. A soft breeze caressed the dark, velvet petals. Long, serrated leaves rattled on thorny stems as the breeze crawled through aisle after aisle of blood red flowers and Robert felt overwhelmed by their perfume.
Standing slowly, he brushed a hand through his close-cropped hair. It felt odd to him, having such short hair after so many years of wearing a ponytail.
Birds flitted though the oak trees that bordered his large back yard, a yard that he had only so recently come to possess. Deep, untainted blue peered through the gently waving branches. The amber sun shone high overhead in the afternoon sky. Amidst the sea of emerald grass surrounding the garden, a squirrel munched contentedly on an acorn. It unhurriedly finished its meal then scampered randomly about the yard, looking for another morsel abandoned by the trees.
Glancing back down into the garden, seeing the pruning shears, Robert realized that he had been thinking of the past again. The thing in his head didn’t like him thinking of the past; it wanted him to concentrate not on what was, but on what inevitably would be.
* * *
Two weeks ago, Bobby the Blade had been on a bus. He had just finished a job in New Orleans, one that had been quite ugly—even by his standards. He had never liked killing women, particularly pregnant ones. In this case, his client had wanted her and the unborn child skinned and gutted; he had done so. It had taken him just under four hours to do the job, the woman whimpering at each slice until a final ragged breath shuddered through her. His client had also requested that the woman's eyes be cut out. That had been a first for Bobby, and he was still somewhat startled by the eyes, by how heavy they were. His wallet, fattened with a few grand transplanted from the briefcase at his side, pressed comfortably against his thigh.
The unfocused gray of roadside trees slashed past the window as the bus hurtled down the dark highway. Bobby shifted his gaze upward, pressing against the glass until he could see the moon. It was full and bright, blotting out the stars with a halo that cast a soft blue across the night sky.
What a beautiful night, he thought.
Since the twin tower bombings, ramped up airport security had made it next to impossible for Bobby to fly. The bus, though an infinitely slower mode of transport, had become his new choice for anonymous travel.
A shift in weight. A soft groan followed by a quiet sigh against his elbow.
Bobby looked down at the sleeping girl in the seat beside him. She couldn't have been more than eleven. He remembered her look of confusion as she had moved down the aisle, glancing nervously from her ticket to the numbers posted on each row of seats. Long, blond hair, almost white with its purity, swept over her shoulders. A large, black overnight bag draped from her shoulder and she had to shift it forward at each row of seats so it wouldn't nudge a passenger in the head. Before she was halfway up the aisle, Bobby knew that she would be sitting beside him. She looked so much like his own daughter, whom he hadn't seen in five years.
Four hours later, as moonlit night pressed through the window, the girl slept, her head cradled in the curve of Bobby's arm. He reached down and gently brushed a strand of hair from her face.
I can't wait to see my daughter again, he thought. I can't wait to see my Mandy.
With each passing moment, the Greyhound carried him closer to her.
* * *
The bus pulled into Tallahassee, Florida just after three a.m. As the other passengers stood and gathered their possessions, Bobby gently shook the girl.
"Hey. Hey, hey," he said softly. "Wake up, hon’. We're here."
She stirred, then opened her eyes. Bobby was struck by the piercing alertness in those eyes, two sapphires of awareness untouched by the glaze of sleep. After a moment she blinked, then raised herself from the crook of his elbow, smiling sheepishly.
"Thanks," she said. She tugged the overnight bag from under her seat, stood and merged with the ragged line of people shuffling toward the exit.
Bobby waited until the last person was almost out the door. During this time he went through his inventory. He didn't have to look to know what he carried; with quick movements of his hand he touched each of his possessions. Ten-inch hunting knife in its boot sheath. Stiletto in his back pocket. Five throwing knives in their shoulder sheath under his jacket. Wallet, briefcase full of cash, multiple I.D.'s, and razor blades. A small key ring with a tiny, needle-thin spring loaded knife. Everything seemed in place.
Bobby the Blade stood, walked down the aisle, and stepped out onto the streets of Tallahassee.
* * *
After waiting for fifteen minutes, as a woman with far too much make-up smeared on her face explained a surgical procedure being done to her dog to a long-distance relative that she apparently never talked to, Bobby was able to use the payphone. After propping the briefcase on the ledge beneath the phone, he flicked his calling card out of his wallet and punched in the appropriate numbers.
The line clicked, then rang twice.
He glanced quickly about. No one within hearing range; good.
"Hello?" The voice, slightly tainted by miles of fiber optic cable, was female and husky.
"Hi, Anne. This is Bobby. Phil in?"
"Yeah. Hang on."
The line went silent. A liquid, hacking cough raged through the Greyhound bus station. Wiping a strand of dark hair from his eyes, Bobby turned and saw a ragged man, his gaunt frame swallowed by a Grateful Dead T-shirt and ripped Levi's. The man wiped phlegm from his mouth with the back of his hand, shuffled to the exit, leaned heavily against the door, and pushed out into the darkness.
Glancing about, Bobby saw other unfortunates. Many leaned uncomfortably in stale corners of the station, dirt smeared chins gently resting on their chests as they attempted to sleep away the night.
Grumbling engines and the sour odor of diesel exhaust flooded into the station as the door to the terminal opened and a thick line of passengers entered. A balding man strolled confidently to his wife, hugging her; she hesitantly embraced him in return. A small boy bolted to the video games, his Yu-Gi-Oh T-shirt a bright yellow blur in the florescent lights of the station; a woman, quickly caught him by the arm and dragged him toward the exit. A young man, pierced with a chain that hung from his nose to his ear, strode past the phones and into the snack bar. Not one passenger seemed to notice the unwanted that crouched in the corners.
The line clicked again and Bobby turned back to the phone.
"Bobby," greeted a voice thick with the false joy reserved for business matters. "How goes it?"
"Fine, Phil. Everything's peachy."
"I assume the job went well?"
"Smooth as glass. No problems."
There was a pause. Bobby knew that Phil would be pouring himself a cognac and lighting a cigar.
"You procured the skins and… the other items?"
"Of course. They should reach the address you requested by Wednesday." Bobby resisted the urge to ask him what he wanted the skins for—much less the eyes.
"Ah. You're a good man, Bobby. That's why you get cash up front. I might have some more work for you later this week-"
"Actually, I'm taking a week off. Going to see my daughter. It's been a while."
"Good. You need a break. Give my regards to Mandy."
"Sure, Phil. Thanks."
"No, no. Thank you for the good work. I'll be in touch."
The line went dead.
* * *
An uncharacteristic chill flowed through the mid-April air as he stepped out onto Tennessee Street. The breeze carried a scent of tar and flowers mixed with greasy odors from all-night fast food restaurants. Across the way he could see the local Tal-Tran bus terminal bathed in pink halogen, lifeless at this hour. Behind that, he knew, was the library where he used to take Mandy for puppet shows when she was younger.
A flood of memories surged through him. The night that Mandy was born, Bobby the Blade had been in San Francisco; he had killed thirteen people that night. When Mandy took her first footsteps, Bobby had been in Las Vegas; he had been contracted for only two killings that night. Mandy's second-grade play: a family of four, dismembered. The fourth-grade track meet in which Mandy won first place for the fifty-yard dash: decapitation of a wealthy debutante. Bobby the Blade was always kept very busy.
That was why Bobby's wife, Janine, had divorced him; he was always at work. She had married him with the belief that he was a regional sales representative for IBM; that conveniently explained why he was always on the move, always busy, always flooded with cash bonuses. He knew, to this day, that she still believed in his overwhelming skill as a salesman.
Bobby thought of Janine, of how angry she would be when he showed up on her doorstep at eight in the morning. He remembered how her nostrils flared when she got angry, how her voice creased into a harsh, cutting whisper. He knew that the anger would soon melt to acceptance, then into a reserved joy; first she would accuse him of not caring, point out how he had phoned only three times in the last year. Then she would ask him in for coffee. And then he would see Mandy.
With a mild shock, he realized that she would be almost thirteen years old. He had sent her money on each birthday, in lame attempts to make up for his absence. So much lost time, he thought. And I'm the one who lost it.
A hacking cough. Spitting, followed by a deep, gurgling wheeze.
Bobby turned to find the thin man in the Grateful Dead T-shirt, knees drawn up to his chest, huddled against the brick wall of the bus station. The man shivered through a mask of dirt, eyes closed tight, face drawn in pain and anger. His lips, stained purple, twitched in a constant, murmuring litany.
Bobby moved closer.
"Didn't do nothin'," the man said, his voice sandpaper and bile. He began rocking, torn Nike's leaving the ground each time his shoulder blades kissed the wall. "Disturbin' the customers. Didn't see no customers-"
Suddenly his eyes flicked open and he stared at Bobby with a clear blue intensity surrounded by spider-webs of broken red.
"There weren't no customers," he said. "I just wanted to sit in the coffee shop. There weren't anybody-"
A massive cough tore through his body. He spit. Bobby could see the man's teeth, tainted blue-gray from red wine.
"You're sick," said Bobby. "Isn't there a shelter right down the-?"
"I didn't see no customers. They just don't want me in there. Let all them others sleep in there, but not me, nope. Not me."
"Why don't you go down to the shelter." Pulling a rubber band from his pocket, Bobby secured his hair in a thick, dark ponytail.
The man watched him, his blue eyes darting from Bobby's hands to pockets to hair. "Shelter's all full up."
Bobby glanced at his watch. Almost four in the morning; he had a lot of time to kill before he caught a cab to Janine's. His stomach rumbled. He turned away from the man and began walking up Tennessee Street toward a Denny's, shoving his hands into his pockets to ward off the chill.
His wallet snuggled against his fingers. He stopped. Guilt crept ever so gently across the borders of his mind, prodding his hand even farther into his pocket.
After a moment’s debate, Bobby pulled the wallet from his pocket, unfolded it, and extracted a fifty-dollar bill. He walked over and knelt beside the man.
"Here," Bobby said, pushing the bill into the man's quivering palm. "There's a Holiday Inn right down the street. Go there. Get a room. Eat. Get someone to get you some medicine."
Bobby stood and leaned forward so that he loomed over the man. "If I find out you bought booze with that money, I'll kill you. You understand me?"
Before the man could answer, Bobby turned and stalked away. When he looked back, the man was gone.
* * *
Bobby had not walked twenty feet before he saw the girl with the blond hair standing alone in the parking lot of the bus station. Her hair, gently swaying in the dark breeze, shimmered like silk in the pink halogen lights. The large overnight bag lay at her feet.
Waiting for her ride, he thought.
But the way she stood there, her body rigid, unmoving, her face angled at the ground in supplication. Bobby considered going over to her, but thought better of it; he had done enough for others this day. Then she turned to him, sapphire eyes wide. Her bottom lip trembled. He knew then that he should walk away, yet cursed himself for not doing so.
"Jesus Christ," he mumbled. "What is it with this night?"
He motioned with his hand for her to come over. She picked up the overnight bag and moved toward him, her footsteps small, hesitant. The weight of the bag seemed to pull her off balance, and she stumbled once before she reached him.
After brushing a strand of platinum hair from her face, she said, "My uncle was supposed to pick me up. He never came. I called him, but… but…" Her lip trembled again, and a tear cut a crystalline trail down her cheek.
"Honey, don't cry," Bobby said, placing his hand gently on her shoulder. "It'll be okay."
She looked up at him.
"You hungry?" he asked.
"So am I. Let's you and I walk down to the Denny's. We'll get something to eat and keep trying to reach your uncle from there, okay?"
She nodded again.
He reached down, took the heavy overnight bag from her, and hefted it over his shoulder.
At some point during the half-mile walk to Denny's, she grabbed Bobby's hand and held it tight.
* * *
A stale odor of cigarette smoke and discarded spearmint chewing gum lingered throughout the cab. Bobby stared forward, studying the back of the driver's head. Wrinkle creased neck, leathery from too many days in the sun. Hint of gray hair peeking out from under a garnet and gold baseball cap. Tiny scab under the ear from a careless razor stroke.
Beside Bobby, the girl with the blond hair sat quietly, the large overnight bag cradled across her lap. She gazed out the window, her eyes seemingly oblivious to the shafts of golden dawn that flickered through thick, moss covered tree limbs.
Their breakfast together at Denny's had been heavy with silence; he didn't ask any questions, she didn't offer any answers. Twice she rose from the table and went to a payphone. Twice she came back, her expression the same as before.
Finally she had looked up from her untouched Grand Slam and said, "If I call a taxi, will you go to my uncle's house with me? I know where he lives."
Bobby had simply nodded.
The cab turned right onto Jefferson Street and moved slowly down an aisle of old houses bordered by tall oak trees and bright, green lawns. About halfway up the street, the cab pulled to a stop.
"213 Jefferson," the driver said.
Rays of morning sun shown through the trees, casting spider-web shadows across the lush grass and the long cement walkway that led up to the stoop of an old brick house. Vines coursed like varicose veins over the brick, lancing up and over the roof to interlace with the trees far above.
"This is my uncle's house," said the girl. She moved to open the door.
"I'll stay here," said Bobby. He reasoned that if the girl's uncle wasn't home he would pay the cabby to drive her to the police station. After all, he had his own daughter to see.
"Please come with me," the girl whispered, placing her hand on his shoulder. Her voice quivered. "Uncle always comes to pick me up. I'm scared something's wrong."
Bobby looked at her.
Again, those startling blue eyes, wide, pleading; he fell into them, felt as though he was drowning in a most beautiful and delicate sea. He was sinking. Deeper, ever deeper. Darkness. A wave of heat suddenly crashed over and through him, sweeping him down a tunnel and into a field of tall orchids, their stems caressed gently by the fingers of a tender wind. No sun graced the rich, blue sky; everything seemed to be lit from somewhere else. In the distance he could see a hill shrouded in mist, and on that hill stood a shadow outlined in golden light. It turned to him and smiled.
"You goin' or stayin'?" asked a harsh voice accompanied by the gray aroma of cigarette butts.
Bobby shook his head to find the cab driver glaring at him through dull, bloodshot eyes.
Scowling, Bobby slipped a twenty-dollar bill to the driver. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
The girls lips parted, perfect white teeth framed by a confident smile. "I knew you would come," she said, and wrestled open the door, dragging the heavy overnight bag behind her.
Bobby stepped out of the cab and slammed the door. The light breeze carried a hint of sweet flowers to him. His mind trip-darted to orchids, a hill, a shadow… He stumbled as he stepped from the street and into the thick grass that bordered the walkway to the front door. His vision blurred. Looking up, he found the girl standing on the walkway, staring at him. Her eyes no longer seemed helpless; narrowed with concentration and purpose, they flashed like blue fire.
Bobby shut his eyes, shook his head to clear it. Again, he felt himself drowning. Orchids. Shadow. Fear. Drowning.
"It always smells so pretty here," he heard the girl say. "My uncle has a beautiful rose garden in the back yard."
As suddenly as it had started—the fear, the sensation of drowning, the images—all retreated. Bobby found himself standing on the top stair of the stoop, the girl next to him.
“Roses?” Bobby said, his voice quavering slightly. “Not orchids?”
Instead of answering she gently reached out and pushed the glowing doorbell button. A loud buzz-ring issued from the other side of the old, paint flaked door.
Glancing up, Bobby saw layers of gossamer swirling aimlessly around an empty light socket. Though he couldn't find the spider, dried husks of several entangled bug shells wove an intricate dance in the light wind.
The girl rang the bell again. After a moment she turned to him.
“Sometimes my uncle works out back in the rose garden,” she said. “It’s cooler in the mornings.”
She hefted the strap of the overnight bag onto her shoulder and began an awkward shuffle toward the side of the house.
“Just wait here, ‘kay? I’ll be right back.”
She had only just made it around the corner of the house before the front door opened to reveal a handsome man wearing light pajamas under a cheap cloth robe. Bobby immediately felt as though he had met the man before, though he couldn’t place his features. Dark hair edging toward the gray. Bright blue eyes, very similar to those of the girl, stared at him with a hint of joy.
“Please, come in,” Uncle said with a slight wave of one hand.
“There’s a girl-"
“She’s already inside,” smiled Uncle.
Bobby glanced at the side of the house where she had disappeared. She had just been there not moments ago.
“Please, come inside. I’ll make some coffee.”
Bobby nodded. All the travelling must be getting to him. Maybe he had blanked out there for a second…
The first thing Bobby noticed about the house was how warm and comfortable it felt despite the sparse decor. A couch and matching chair, both adorned with many puffy pillows, rested before a small coffee table. A floor of rich red oak ran the length of the room to a carpeted hallway that presumably led to the bedroom. Just in front of him, Bobby could see the kitchen. A vase of red roses sat on the counter next to the girl’s large overnight bag.
He smiled upon seeing that. She must be really fast, he thought.
“Nice house,” Bobby said. “It feels so… I dunno. Lived in.” He blushed.
“Thank you,” said Uncle. “Glad you like it.”
“You’re her uncle, I take it?”
An alarm sounded in Bobby’s head. Gently placing the briefcase on the floor, he casually slipped his hand into his jacket and rested his fingers lightly on the handle of one of the throwing knives.
“You won’t need those,” said Uncle, his footsteps carrying him over to the counter.
“Where is she?” He tried to see past the man, farther into the kitchen.
“Now, Robert. Please relax. She’s right-"
“-here,” said the girl. And she was—standing exactly where the man had been. And he was nowhere to be seen.
Bobby lurched backwards, his hand, complete with throwing knife, springing from his jacket. He deftly flicked the knife to hold it by its blade.
“What the fuck?”
“It was the unborn one that called us here for you, Robert,” she said.
Then she was gone, replaced by the sick, unwanted man with stained teeth and a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
“We’re all here for you, Robert,” he wheezed. “For what you did. And for what you’ve done in the past.”
Then the sick man was all men. All women. All children. The seething mass of all humanity exploded through the room in a fraction of a second.
Bobby/Robert reeled backwards. He heard the knife clatter uselessly to the hardwood floor.
“You took something before the Creator had completed His work,” said Uncle.
Mind stunned by the myriad of images invading his consciousness, Bobby/Robert sank to his knees. Something was crawling in his head. His stomach heaved out digested pancakes and sausage.
“But there is still some good in you,” the girl said.
The thing in his head was moving, wrapping around everything that was Bobby/Robert. Claustrophobia overtook him. He fell to his side into his own vomit, body twitching.
“Why else would you have helped out a sick man? Why escort an innocent to her uncle’s house?” She paused.
Something snapped in Robert’s mind.
“What’s this?” said the girl. “Mandy. You have such love for one that you barely know…”
She moved forward and delicately placed her small hand on his head.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It will all be better soon. Soon you will be with Him and feel His everlasting love.”
* * *
Robert had never seen any of them again, but they were always with him, all part of the thing in his head. They carried the weight of His love, an absolute so powerful that it made Robert weep.
Ignoring the rips in his palms caused by harsh thorns, Robert snapped a rose from one of the bushes. It would not do to see Mandy after all this time without a gift, the thing in his head reasoned. And Robert could not agree more.