Critical Hit

It was not difficult to convince the mother to take her daughter and stay for a few days in a place that wasn’t her home.

Over the past month, what had started as a little girl’s nightmares become a mom’s nightmares, which then evolved into whispers from the walls, escalating into deep scratches on their skin while they slept. She’d tried counseling, exterminators, and dermatologists, all to no avail. And so, when a forthright young woman with impeccable posture appeared at her door and introduced herself as a witch and paranormal consultant, she was desperate enough to toss her the keys and find a hotel.

This is how Gina the teenage witch and paranormal consultant operated–with composed swagger and competent grace.

And this is how Jin always found himself at her beck and call.

Her best friend Susan, also at her beck and call, said to her, “Baby,” she said to her, “I am freezing.”

Susan’s boyfriend spoke, as he always did, economically. “The temperature is a clue.”

Jin sighed. He was never enamored of Victor to begin with, but he could tolerate his all-American masculinity. But now that he was taking magic lessons from Gina, he’d developed a crippling stating-the-obvious addiction. Jin, for one, wished he’d go back to being the Strong, Silent Type.

“Yo,” ordered Susan, “Punk Rock. It’s time for that voodoo that you do.”

Jin laughed. “Why are you calling me Punk Rock? You’ve never done that before.”

“Trying it out,” she replied. “What do you think?”

“I kind of hate it.”

“Harsh,” she admitted, “but fair.”

Gina cleared her throat. “Sobriquets aside, I believe it is time to begin this aforementioned voodoo.”

Jin didn’t wait another second before throwing himself into a bombastic tune–a soundtrack to his mood. He’d been having a bad week, both academically and socially, but when it came to situations like this, he was a star.

Because Jin had superpowers.

“That voodoo that I do–
Yes, I do the voodoo–
The music is my tool!

I see, hear, smell, and feel
The hidden that is real.
I tell you: it’s real cool!”

But not this time.

Gina studied the look on Jin’s face. “You appear disconcerted.”

“This is…” he told her. “This is really… bad.”

“Please specify.”

“In a haunted house,” he explained, “there’s always this light… haze everywhere. But here it’s a thick fog.” He squinted in concentration. “No, wait, more like smoke. No, a sandstorm! No, a whiteout!”

“That is disconcerting,” she agreed.

“Now what?” Susan asked hesitantly. She wasn’t all that into this supernatural business, but two of the people she loved most were, so here she was. Her expression made it clear she wished she wasn’t.

“Now,” Gina answered, “you will remain in this room while I instruct Victor on a simple blessing that even he, in his enthusiasm, cannot possibly misinterpret to disastrous ends, as he seems eager to do. “

Once…” Victor mumbled.

“Jin,” she continued, “will search the building for the presence that is wreaking such havoc.”

Jin tossed Susan a look of solidarity.

His first stop was the girl’s bedroom, where all this started. He wasn’t there long when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in her cute, little vanity. His reflection was all he caught.

“Oh, fuck!” he cried out. “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh shit oh fuck!” he continued during his dash back to his companions. “We have to leave,” he declared, somehow without screaming.

Susan’s uneasiness snapped into panic. “What?”

“They’re gone,” he told them.

Gina understood immediately what he meant. “That’s impossible.”

Susan was only moments away from freaking out completely, which was the only rational response to the situation. “What’s gone?”

There was no time to explain to her that he could see in mirrors the inhabitants of an eternity of alien worlds–realities, dimensions, whatever. It was just something he’d been able to do since was a boy. You know, superpowers. But now, for the first time boy, these beings were absent. And what’s worse was that he had a pretty solid feeling they’d fled from the area, like fauna before a forest fire. “Me,” he said. “I’m gone.”

“But this is unprecedented!” Gina clutched his arm as he fled. “We have to investigate!”

“Nope,” he replied.

“I’m sharing that nope,” Susan agreed, “and I brought a bunch of my own.”

“Don’t you recognize the significance of this?” Gina begged.

Susan closed her eyes, and when she opened them, they were rolled so far back in her head that they were simply white. And yet, she scanned the room as if she could see just fine.

Jin had seen enough horror movies to know what possession by an evil spirit looked like.

When Susan’s mouth opened to speak, he expected a growl or an unsettling harmony–anything inhuman, really. So it came as a surprise when the only change in Susan’s voice was its newfound steadiness. “Hello, Regina.”

“Hello,” Gina replied politely. “To whom do I speak?”

Susan’s head shook. “No names.”

“You have mine.”

“Because you are careless with it,” the thing in Susan’s body replied. “Out of all the people in this room, you should know how dangerous that is, Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, graduate of the school in the cave.”

“If you know who I am,” she stated, “then you know that I can compel you to tell me whatever I wish.”

“No, you can’t.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

“What are you doing in her body?” demanded Victor with the kind of fragile calm that has to be constructed very, very carefully.

“The door is open. Anybody can come in.”

“I don’t understand,” he confessed.

“This door has been unlocked and not properly closed.”

“I still don’t–“

Brad,” Jin whispered.

Victor frowned. “Who?”

Jin waved his hand. “Long story.”

“I want to hear it.”

“Gina used Susan to channel a ghost but she had her permission and it really, really helped people and I can’t believe nobody told you about that,” he stammered.

“Is that how this happened?” asked Susan’s voice.

“But,” Gina breathed. “I shut the door.”

“Not well enough. It’s been opened since then, more than once. If it hadn’t, I’d never be able to fit in here.”

Victor’s calm began to crumble. “Gina, what did you do?”

Instead of responding, she turned to the monster inhabiting her best friend. “What. Are. You.”

“I am not here to answer your questions.”

“You will.” Tracing a complicated symbol in the air with her fingers, she snarled, Espírito, você deve legar para–

Susan’s fist smashed into Gina’s throat. While she crumpled to the floor, gasping, Susan’s other hand whipped out and grasped Victor’s face as if it were a scrap of paper about to be wadded up.

As he struggled to free himself, Susan’s voice told him, “Victor Huber, you are far more intelligent than you look. You can make an educated guess as to how much damage these well-manicured fingernails could do to your skin if you don’t stop squirming.”

Reluctantly, he did as he was told.

Jin didn’t quite had the time to grasp what was happening until that voice addressed him. “Jin Harima, I want you to look me in the eye.”

He obeyed, and it was clear that, even without pupils, the thing was watching him.

“Sing for me, phonomancer. I want you to see my face.”

“I can’t…”

“Sing.”

Trembling, Jin found a tune:

“I’ve never witnessed such violence.
I’ve never seen Victor laid low.
I’ve never seen Gina silenced.
Whatever you are, I don’t want to know.”

The thing’s real mouth and voice told him, “You don’t have a choice.”

And he was right; this was something he never wanted to know. Its expressionless features were bland and generic, like something an artist would sketch as a placeholder before filling in the details later. Yet they made him feel like a mouse in a field hearing the screech of an owl.

The face quickly faded into the wind, leaving only Susan’s, which ordered, “I want you to tell Regina de Costa what you saw, and then I want you to forget. Are you listening, Regina?”

She was still struggling to inhale, but managed with great effort to turn her head toward them.

“Gina…” Jin tried to say. “It’s… the thing… looks…”

“Never mind,” Susan’s voice told him. “The look on your face says everything.” Susan’s mouth grinned, but it wasn’t Susan’s grin. This was even scarier than anything he’d seen so far.

“I really won’t remember?” Jin squeaked.

“Nor will Victor Huber,” it replied. “You are insignificant.

“Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, you are not. You are a clever little girl. In fact, you are, by far, the cleverest human for miles around. But you are still human.

“I entered this home twenty-eight days ago to find something, but it’s not here. After I abandon this body, I will continue to search this town until I find it. My business is not yours, and it will remain that way. Do you understand?”

Seething, she nodded.

“Now leave,” it concluded. “And so will I.”

Susan’s hand released Victor, and her eyes closed, opening again with irises where they belonged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I must have spaced out for a second.”

Jin blinked. “Me too. Weird.”

Victor rubbed the bruises on his temples. “Huh.”

“Are we going to do this thing?” asked Jin.

“Not necessary,” coughed Gina. “The matter has been settled. It was simpler than I had anticipated.”

Susan frowned. “Wait, what?”

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The Copernican Principle

Despite his insubstantial height, Dr. David Mortenoir dominated the classroom. Maybe it was that one of his eyes was glass, but no one knew which one. Maybe it was his wardrobe, so black it seemed to lack texture or depth. Maybe it was simply the deep gravitas of his voice.

Ultimately, the only time his students felt safe enough to relax was when he paced and lectured, expounding his love of his subject of expertise as if it were an aria.

And this is why, when he paused suddenly, mid-sentence and mid-step, every single person in that room held his or her breath.

“Would you care,” he growled, “to repeat yourself, Mr. Jenkins?”

Jenkins–if the twice-a-senior frat boy had a first name, no one knew it–replied with misplaced confidence, “Well, you were saying how a ‘being is a being that is being–‘”

“I know what I said,” Dr. Mortenoir snapped. “I want you to repeat what you said. I wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”

“I said that I didn’t smoke enough for this.”

“So I did hear correctly,” the professor told the class. He fixed his left eye on his victim–the rest of the class took note of this. “And by smoke, Mr. Jenkins, I assume you’re referring to grass.”

Jenkins mumbled something.

“Louder, please, Mr. Jenkins.”

“Yes.”

“Hmph,” said Dr. Mortenoir. He looked away, and when he turned back, his right eye settled on him. “And whose fault is that?”

“My dealer?”

The room seemed to hiccup, as everyone, in unison, held back a giggle.

The professor snorted. “I somehow doubt that, Mr. Jenkins. You never struck me as the kind of man who knows how to pace himself.

The room hiccupped again.

Two seats over and one row back, Fred gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. This Jenkins asshole was ruining everything.

No, that wasn’t true. Fred wasn’t really pissed at Jenkins; he was pissed about what happened at work earlier. Because today was his day. And he blew it.

This morning was the first time that his crush, the geeky girl with the big, round glasses, the fitted turtlenecks, and the pleated skirts, came into the campus bookstore during his shift, a look of puzzlement on her so, so adorable face.

He’d only seen her around for a few weeks, but a combination of timing and social anxiety kept him from talking to her. The two times he’d been alone with her and had no excuse not to introduce himself, he’d choked. He could never think of a single opening.

But this time, his expertise presented him with the single best opportunity he’d ever had. It was time. His knees wobbled, but he stumbled on in her direction, allowing momentum to do all the work. His throat tightened and dried, but he swallowed to loosen and lubricate him. His brain told him he was too boring and too unattractive to get her attention, but he told it to shut up to let his crush decide what she thought of him.

And so he’d appeared at her side and told her he could help, and she’d responded by walking directly toward his coworker at the cash register. It was the kind of thing he couldn’t help but take personally.

But maybe it had nothing to do with him. Maybe she simply didn’t hear him. Maybe she didn’t know if he actually worked there. Maybe she was friends with his coworker, and he just didn’t know it.

That was then. Now, he was engaging in one of his favorite activities in the world: absorbing the knowledge of the greatest philosophy teacher since Socrates. He wasn’t going to let some substance-abusing douchebag or the memory of a flighty nerd ruin it for him.

“Now that we’ve established Mr. Jenkins’s crippling sobriety,” continued Dr. Mortenoir, “who can explain what is meant by being?”

His hand shot up at the same time as a buxom coed. The professor acknowledged her with his left eye. This made sense to Fred, given the open secret of Dr. Mortenoir’s icky weakness for a certain type of young woman; no one was perfect.

“Existing?” the coed offered.

The professor grunted. “Existing. Brilliant. Can anyone tell me what we mean by being without consulting a thesaurus?”

Behind Fred’s raised arm sat the redhead with the green scarf, now the recipient of Dr. Mortenoir’s right eye.

“Let’s hear it,” he requested hesitantly.

“I think…” she tried; “… I think Aristotle theorized that being is defined by the ability of something to act on something else.”

“Decent start,” he replied, “but still not right. Can anybody tell Ms. Blake why she’s wrong?”

Fred flapped both of his hands in the air like he was directing traffic at a Formula One race.

“Nobody?” Dr. Mortenoir asked.

Fred flapped harder. He was on the verge of going airborne.

“Really?” Dr. Mortenoir begged. “Now this is just sad.”

Fred broke. He slammed his palms on the desk, causing everyone but Dr. Mortenoir to jump several inches. Immediately Fred turned crimson and sank down in his seat. It was okay to be frustrated, but that was kind of immature.

Dr. Mortenoir finally focused his right eye in his direction, and then cocked his head to addressed the woman behind him with his left. “If we were to settle on your definition, Miss Blake, Aristotle definitively proved that Fred exists.”

Wishing he didn’t anymore, Fred sank even further into his seat while the class chuckled.

He spent the next hour listening, and then slinked away to his off-campus apartment. As usual, his flatmate lay sprawled on the couch, staring at the television and shoving an enchilada into his face.

As he blew past, Fred muttered, “Norville.”

As usual, his flatmate didn’t even look up.

“Whatever.” Seriously, screw that guy. Fred wasn’t the most clean person on earth, but at least he–

“What the fuck!” he shouted as soon as he entered his bedroom. “Goddammit! This isn’t funny anymore!”

Actually it wasn’t even funny the first time Norville had rearranged the furniture in his bedroom. But this was… how many times? And how the hell did this asshole, who seemed to exist solely to consume sodium, saturated fats, corn syrup, and anything coming from an LED screen even get the motivation to pull this stupid, stupid prank over and over again.

“Get the fuck in here and fix this, Norville!”

When no response came, Fred kicked the wall as hard as he could, not regretting the outburst at all. He turned back to the door, only to find it occupied by a diminutive Cool Guy with frosted, spiky hair, a studded denim jacket, and an unlit cigarette behind his ear.

The Cool Guy shouted down the hallway, “He’s here!”

“Finally!” shouted back a woman from the direction of the kitchen.

“Susan,” said another woman’s voice, “I’ve advised patience on innumerable occasions.”

“That doesn’t make it suck any less,” Susan told her.

“We’ll discuss its virtues later, but first, I must converse with–“

“Oh, hell no!” Susan snapped. “Baby, you have the bedside manner of a cranky-ass textbook.”

“Textbooks are inanimate objects,” explained the one called Baby. “They cannot have a bedside manner, much less attach any emotional value to their words.”

“That was a metaphor,” Susan told her.

“My response had been sarcasm. That you didn’t recognize that is disappointing.”

“For fuck’s sake,” groaned the Cool Guy. “I’m in a band with groupies and everything. Why do I even hang out with you?”

A hand softly patted his arm.

When he saw who it belonged to, the Cool Guy moved away and said, “He’s all yours, Victor. Be gentle.”

Victor was six feet tall and wore a body consisting of broad, lean muscles just a little too large for his white, threadbare T-shirt. For some reason, a green handkerchief–which brought out his equally green eyes–draped over his shoulder, as if he had come over immediately after posing for a sexy calendar.

Usually a boy that attractive brought out a streak of jealousy in Fred, but something about Victor made him an exception. Maybe it was his sincere warmth, which made it clear he wanted to be friends. His voice was as gentle as his smile, softening the impact of the three words he spoke: “Fred, you’re dead.”

“Huh,” he thought aloud. “That actually explains a lot…”

Sweep the Leg

“Yo,” Susan concluded, “I don’t think that’s her.”

“Who else would it be?” asked Jin.

“Don’t know,” she replied. “Does that urban legend say the ghost of Abby Winston likes to stand around in a toga, carrying a torch like some deceased Statue of Liberty?”

“Toga?” he muttered. “I thought that was an old-timey nightgown.”

“I’m pretty sure old-school nightgowns had sleeves.”

Jin snorted, “So now you’re an expert in Reconstruction-era sleepwear?”

“Vic, baby,” Susan begged the blond-haired, blue-eyed Midwestern masterpiece standing next to her, “this was your idea. What do you think this is about?”

Victor grunted. While Jin and his lover had been bickering about the identity of the pale girl they’d summoned and trapped inside a circle of chalk and candles, he’d been carefully studying her. Through black, glistening hair, she’d been studying them back.

According to rumor, Abigail Winston died in 1902 of pneumonia in the library her father had bought and paid for. Over the generations and to this day, friends of friends of students at this college claimed to have seen her spirit wandering the stacks, lantern in hand.

This girl was most certainly dead. Her skin had faded to an empty gray, her flowing dress–or nightgown or toga, whatever–had taken on the green of moss, and the eye he could see was dark and sunken, shrouded in the harsh light of the flames above and below her. So there was that.

On the other hand, that wasn’t a lantern she was carrying.

“I’m inclined to agree with you,” he replied after some thought. “That don’t look like some rich girl who died before her time.”

“Then what the hell is it?” asked Jin.

Victor shrugged.

Susan glared at Jin. “You’re the one with the superpowers,” she reminded him, “you figure it out.” She then turned her attention to her boyfriend. “I think it’s totally cool that Gina’s showing you how to do hoodoo, but if you do shit like this again next time she leaves town…” She pointed up and down her torso. “… you are never seeing this again. Ya dig?”

He nodded.

Jin belted out a song.

I know not what you are,
Or whether you have traveled far.
To illuminate our humble college.
Can you gift us your knowledge?

With the shadow of her eye, the girl glared.

“I got nothing,” Jin confessed, “but a general sense of pissiness.”

“Never mind what I said, baby,” Susan told Victor. “You’re cut off, irregardless.”

“It’s okay,” Victor assured them. “She can’t hurt us as long as she stays in the circle.”

Jin slapped his face in his palm. “You do realize you probably jinxed us.”

Sure enough, with the sucking sound of a foot freeing itself from thick mud–as opposed to the tile they all stood on–the girl took one step out of the chalk outline, knocking over every candle in her path.

“I got this,” Jin announced before serenading her.

Superpowers activate!
Danger I exterminate!
I’m Jin, the music master,
And you are a disaster!

She waved her torch in front of his face.

“What?” he responded. “What do you mean they’re not real? I’ve been seeing them all my life! Am I crazy? Holy shit I’m crazy!” He collapsed to his knees, eyes open wide and watering. “I saved her… from myself? Oh my God I tried to suffocate my own mom! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!”

The girl turned, pointed a finger at Susan, and whispered, “Soon.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Victor declared and lunged between them. What he got for his bravery was an eyeful of torch.

When he blinked away the spots, he saw his high school sweetheart, but older. Behind her scrambled a laughing boy he loved with all his heart. Through them, he saw a desert that stripped away his pride and his very name.

A voice he recognized broke through all of this, saying, “Victor, my disappointment in you is matched only by the virtuosity of your failure.”

A voice he didn’t recognize purred, “Hellooooo, gorgeous!”

A pair of hands gripped his shoulders and shook him until the visions parted like a curtain, revealing sour face of his mentor, Gina. He kind of wanted the hallucinations back. “I advised you against spellcraft in my absence for a reason, Victor.”

His head whipped around the room in a panic. “Susan!”

“Susan is unharmed,” Gina told him. “She’s assisting Jin.”

He sighed.

“Are you functional?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Then listen closely,” she said slowly and clearly. “If you had been heeding my instructions, you would have recalled that research is essential to the process. And if you had done this research, you would have discovered that Rutherford Walton, the patron of this library, bore two sons and no daughter. The haunting you sought is a complete fabrication.

“Additionally, you also would have recalled the importance of leaving no gaps in the circle, no matter how miniscule.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Your apology means little if you intend to repeat this error.”

“I won’t,” he replied.

“Splendid. Now, if you’ll wait here, I must scold your partner in romance and monumental fuck-ups.”

Victor focused on the rescuer who had arrived with Gina–a woman clad in orange and green, topped off with ludicrously bouncy black-and-silver curls. She retreated from the menace of the girl slowly marching toward her, yet she grinned and bounced like a playful puppy.

“… an amazing year, I tell you!” she’d been babbling. “I mean, a kamaitachi and melon heads–which are a lot more menacing than their name implies, I assure you–and now you!”

Who?” whispered the girl.

“Sorry,” she laughed. “Manners. I’m Rafaela. Torres. Rafaela Torres. And you are… Wow… Although I’m curious: you can look like just about any female in the world, and you pick J-horror. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good look for you, but still, why did you choose this?”

How?

“I don’t know,” Rafaela replied. “I think it was an accident. Either way, the circle is broken. You can leave now.”

Why?

“Your mistress isn’t here anymore,” Rafaela told her. “She hasn’t been in a long time. She’s home, waiting for you to light her way.”

No.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?”

Yes.

“Fine,” Rafaela said, just before sidestepping, ducking into a crouch, and kicking her ankles. By the time the girl landed on her back, Rafaela had sprung to her feet, planting one on her fist, which still held tightly onto the torch.

“Holy shit!” yelped Susan.

“Huh,” agreed Victor.

“Dang,” breathed Jin.

“That was indeed impressive,” admitted Gina.

“Thanksh!” Rafaela mumbled while plucking the cap of off a dry-erase marker with her teeth. She scribbled something onto the girl’s arm, recapped the marker, and shouted to the heavens, “Hecate, recuperar o teu servo partir desta terra estranha!”

The girl gurgled for a minute before her body crumbled into wet soil, her hair and toga into algae, and her torch into ash. All of these quickly dissolved into smoke.

That settled, Rafaela clapped her hands and asked the room, “Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned a lampad?”

“I thought a lampad was a fish,” Jin said.

Gina groaned.

Rafaela’s eyes widened. “She appeared to you as a fish? That’s wild! I didn’t know she could look like different things to different people! I saw a creepy, gross dead girl! How did she look to everyone else?”

Gina groaned louder. “He thinks you said lamprey.”

“Oh.” Rafaela needed a minute to let this detail soak in. “Let me rephrase that: Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned an ancient Greek underworld nymph who serves the three-headed goddess of crossroads and the moon?”

Victor exchanged a glance with Susan and Jin.

Rafaela rolled her eyes. “Don’t all raise your hands at once.”

Recency Bias

Icicles made of venom dripped out of Gina’s voice. “You invited her.”

Jin reminded her, “She’s your best friend.”

“She has a new best friend now,” Gina replied. “One with an erect penis.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m right here!” moaned Susan from the other side of the booth.

“Given your perpetual state of attachment,” Gina said, “I’m surprised that Victor isn’t sitting beside you.”

“I left him in the truck,” Susan told her.

“Really.” Gina craned her neck to get a glance through the diner’s window of her rival’s trademark pickup, and what she saw made her bolt out of her seat and grab her purse. “That is … unexpected.”

Susan followed her the door. “Why the fuck are you being this way about me dating somebody?”

“I guess I’ll pay the bill then,” Jin called after them.

They came to a halt at the sight of a pair of preteen boys pounding on the side of Victor’s truck, shouting, “Let! Us! In!

“Are those the monsters we’re chasing?” Susan asked.

The monsters I’ve come to chase,” Gina corrected her.

“They don’t look like much,” she said and charged. She froze immediately when the children turned to face her. “Oh no,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Oh, no no no no no no …”

Even though she’d spent most of the afternoon on Jin’s phone, researching black-eyed children; even though she’d listened twice to the testimony of a near-victim; even though her presence in this town was due entirely to the study of this phenomenon, Gina never dreamed she’d actually have a chance to witness it.

Meters away, a perfect specimen of Midwestern ruggedness and functional muscle cowered away from two children. Closer still, a young woman who had grown up protecting her older brother from bullies and criminals, in the urban decay of the American Rust Belt sobbed an apology to her boyfriend, whom she couldn’t rescue from said children.

The researcher in Gina wished she could simply observe, but that wouldn’t do at all. She reached into her purse and took a step forward, halting when it occurred to her how much danger lay ahead. The only logical course of action would be to retrieve Susan, abandon Victor, and return to the diner. Then again, the threat was so great that it might make more sense to leave Susan behind as well. Gina wasn’t a hero; she was just a spoiled little girl who ran away from home because it was stagnant. And now she was throwing a temper tantrum because her new life wasn’t stagnant enough. Maybe it would be best if she just left.

Jin appeared at her side. “That’s them, isn’t it?”

“Jin,” Gina replied, “I believe we may be at an impasse.”

“Them?” he snorted. “I can handle them.”

“I find that unlikely,” she said.

“You’ve seen it yourself,” he told her. “I’m the phonomancer. All I need are some tunes, and we can talk our way through this like we always do.”

“I remain skeptical.”

He smirked. “I got this.”

He swooped over with a little fancy footwork, singing, “If you speak, you have my ear; just please step away from the truck. State your peace, depart from here; all I ask is—oh, fuck!” Under the scrutiny of those eyes, he began to pant uncontrollably. “Gina, we have to grab Susan and leave. Right. Now. We can hide in the diner—we’ll be safe there.”

She agreed with him wholeheartedly, but there was something that still bugged her. “Safe from what?”

“Susan!” he called out, “we have to go!”

“But Victor …” Susan replied.

“We’re no use to him if we can’t get away!” he told her.

Susan backed toward him, never taking her eyes off of her boyfriend’s pickup. “I’m so sorry …”

Jin grabbed Gina’s arm. “We have to get inside.”

“Why?” she asked. Why was it safe inside? What was it about doors that protected them from the black-eyed children? Doors, of course, housed endless metaphor, and many folkloric races were powerless against them; however, most could cross a doorway if invited. And frankly, who would invite those dreadful apparitions inside?

Actually, who wouldn’t? In every testimony she’d read, the children seemed benign, and their prey had been only moments from admitting them when the latter revealed the extent of their menace. There were no accounts of what happened if they were allowed inside. Why?

Exasperated, Jin pointed at the children, who continued to stare in their direction. “Them!”

He was right. No information existed about their potential fate, because no witnesses survived such an encounter. Their horrors were as dark and mysterious and dead as these predators’ black gaze. Everything about them existed to terrify—their eyes, their voices, the bodies of children they seemed to wear, as opposed to inhabit.

“We’re right here,” she muttered. “Why are they just standing there?”

“Do you really want to find out?” Jin begged.

No, no, no, no, absolutely not. Her curiosity, however, overrode her sense of self-preservation, as per usual. “Yes,” she forced herself to reply.

“Come on, you idiot!”

“Go,” she said.

“You heard the woman,” Jin told Susan as he bolted away.

Gina lashed out and clutched Susan’s wrist. “Not you.”

Susan said nothing, but her face spoke of fear, confusion, and a just a little bit of hope.

“We can save him,” Gina said.

“No,” she replied, “we can’t.”

“I just need to go over and speak to them.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Susan squeaked.

“I won’t be harmed.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Susan repeated.

It was a valid question. This was insane. Since childhood, Gina had been trained to identify and exploit loopholes within the laws of physics. She learned history from vampires, meditation from wraiths, and physical fitness from werewolves. No monster frightened her, except for these children. Instinctively, she understood that they would certainly be death of her.

Nine months ago, she would have abandoned this parking lot. However, she had one thing now she didn’t have before. “Correction:” Gina said; “I won’t be harmed if you are there to protect me.”

“Who’s going to protect me?”

“Why would you need protecting?” Gina asked. “You’re practically a goddess.”

Susan smiled through her tears. “All right, you got me.”

Their fingers laced together.

“Come,” Gina declared, “let us descend upon them as badasses.”

Dread, she told herself with each step, is the fiction of the timid. After an eternity, they stood face to face with the children. Looking them in the eye was the single most difficult thing Gina had ever done in her life, but the situation called for it. “Go home.”

“Can you give us a ride then?” the taller of the creatures asked.

“No.”

“But we need a ride!”

She was wrong. This would never work. They needed to retreat.

“I’m here,” whispered Susan.

Gina gritted her teeth. “The boy in the vehicle is frightened of you. The woman behind me is frightened of you. I am terrified of you. This is a bountiful harvest. You should be pleased.”

Take us with you!”

“You’ve feasted enough,” Gina told them. “Go. Home.”

The creatures relaxed, and the speaker patted its partner’s shoulder. “This is lame,” it muttered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Gina exhaled and collapsed against the closest fender. She turned to her friend to celebrate with a mutual grin of victory, but Susan wasn’t there. She had torn open the pickup, yanked her boyfriend outside, and kissed him desperately.

Gina closed her eyes. The status quo, she told herself, is the fiction of the timid.

“If You Have Come Here to Help Me, You Are Wasting our Time”

“I don’t know why–I just felt like I had to let them in. But there was something really weird about it. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century; why didn’t they have cell phones?

“I guess I took too long to make up my mind, because the older one started shouting, ‘Just let us in! Let! Us! In!’ And that’s when I saw their eyes for the first time.” The recording went quiet.

After a long, patient moment, Gina started to ask, “Is that–?”

Her answer came from the electronic voice continuing, “And then they screamed. I can’t…” The person speaking sniffled and gulped. “Oh, my God. So I slammed the door in their faces.

“About an hour or two later, I looked out my bedroom window, and there they were, still on the porch, and they both turned and looked right at me, with those eyes.

“I haven’t slept since then. I called in sick to work yesterday, and I spent all last night hiding in the bathroom–there’s no windows there. I just… I left the house today, but I’m still so scared. They’re out there, with those eyes. I don’t know what to do.”

“I know someone who can help,” said Jin’s voice. “Just keep your blinds shut and don’t open the door until I call tomorrow and tell you I’m outside. Capisce?”

There was a pause, which Gina assumed came from a non-verbal response.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Jin’s voice added. “Trust me. My friend is a rock star at this kind of thing.”

The real-life Jin turned off the playback on his phone and said to Gina, “Well?”

She drummed her fingers against her thigh and considered carefully what she’d just heard. “Why would this man share this with you?”

“He’s a friend of a friend of a friend,” Jin told her. “Word got out about the exorcism you and I did.”

“You’re referring, of course, to the exorcism performed by you and me…” Subtly she gritted her teeth. “… and Susan.”

“I thought we could help.”

“I see.” She asked, “Have you verified his story?”

“Two kids knocked on a single guy’s door and made him lose his shit,” Jin replied. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to verify that.”

“Are you sure he didn’t make this up?”

“Why would he make that up?”

“Are you sure you didn’t make this up?”

“Why would I make that up?”

“Maybe you felt I needed a distraction.” she replied.

“You do need a distraction, Gina.”

“I need no such thing,” she snorted.

“You’re driving your roommate batshit,” Jin told her. “She says you only leave your dorm room when it’s time for class.”

“My primary social contact is otherwise occupied,” she explained. “You are my secondary social contact, and your attention is divided between your studies and your musical interests. My tertiary social contact is also consumed by his studies. And so I have no reason to venture outside.”

“Your tertiary social contact told me you’re welcome to come over whenever and use any of his gaming consoles, and you know it.”

“I’ve already mastered them all,” she said.

Jin shook his head. “Gerard told me you’d say that, and he also told me you’re lying. He routinely kicks your ass on every two-player game, and you are way too competitive to let that go.”

“Perhaps I’ve learned to accept my limitations.”

“Or perhaps your tertiary social contact is the big brother of your primary social contact, and you’re avoiding her.”

“There is no need to avoid Susan,” Gina growled. She has been fucking her new boyfriend nonstop for six days and nine hours, and has therefore been unavailable to avoid.”

“Did you just use the word fucking?” Jin chuckled.

“Is that not an appropriate euphemism for copulation?”

“Why didn’t you just say copulation like you normally would?”

“Because they’re fucking!” she snapped. “Continuously. I’m willing to wager that he even accompanies her to classes and performs cunnilingus under the desk while she takes notes.”

“Look,” he said, fighting back a guffaw that built up in his lungs with the power of a potential sneeze, “I get that you’re jealous–“

“I’m not jealous!”

And that’s all it took for the laughter to burst through Jin’s defenses and consume him.

While he got it out of his system, Gin took a deep breath, smoothed out her hair, and composed herself. “I am, in fact, very happy for her success.” She added, “At fucking.”

He grinned and rolled his eyes. “It’s easy to forget that you’re a teenager.”

“I may be eighteen,” she said, “but I am not behaving–nor do I ever behave–in the adolescent fashion to which you allude.”

“Really.”

She glared at him. “Yes.”

“Then get your mature ass in my car, and we can go help this dude. He only lives a half-hour from here. We can be back in time for dinner.”

“How am I supposed to help this…” The upcoming word left a bad taste in her mouth, but she said it anyway. “… dude… of whom you speak?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but there’s only one person I’ve ever met who would have any experience with Black-Eyed Kids, so you’ve got a leg up on the rest of us.”

“I have no such experience,” she admitted. “In fact, I had always assumed they were merely an Internet-based urban legend, as is the case with the Slender Man.”

“Then shouldn’t you be jumping at the chance to meet one?”

Gina chewed her lip in thought.

“Don’t think about it for too long,” Jin told her. “The bus leaves in ten minutes.”

Gina frowned. “I thought you said we were driving.”

“Does that mean yes?”

She grunted.

In Another Castle

“Is he going to keep doing that?” asked Brad, referring to the way Jin wandered through his apartment, humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

From the loveseat, Susan shrugged. “Just let him do his thing.

Jin paid extra attention to the boxes half full of bras, blouses, and dresses, but something about the canvas bag full of textbooks made him wince just a little. He left the bedroom and continued on.

Brad paced. “I didn’t ask you to come here to listen to him doing his thing.”

Jin lost his place in the song as soon as he entered the bathroom. Decorating the shower was a wall of bottles, including three shampoos, four conditioners, two lotions, and two body washes, along with a crusted can of shaving cream for sensitive skin and a loofah. More lotion, hand cream, and nail-polish remover lined the sink. There were two toothbrushes, one slightly damp, and one very dry. He took a deep breath and resumed whistling, this time a mournful song of his own.

“I asked you to bring that weird person you hang with who’s into all the spooky shit,” Brad continued.

“Yo,” Susan growled, “you want to be talking about my girl Gina, you best be addressing her like she’s in the room.”

“Susan,” Regina said calmly from beside her, “I’m willing to accept a certain amount of rudeness, given the amount of grief and confusion Brad must be feeling, given the circumstances.”

“That’s not Brad,” Jin told them as he reentered the living room.

With the grin of a child receiving a present, Regina sprang to her feet. “Is that right?”

Susan turned to him. “What do you mean, that’s not Brad?”

“I mean,” Jin clarified, “whoever is talking to you doesn’t quite fit into that body.”

“That’s why I called you, Susan,” said whatever was speaking with Brad’s voice. “I need to get out of here.”

Regina grabbed Brad’s face in her hands and examined his eyes. “To whom do I speak?”

“Jennifer,” Brad’s voice replied.

Susan sat up straight. “Jennifer Jennifer? For reals?”

“I’m new at this.” Jin shrugged. “I just see a sparkly blob that doesn’t quite belong.”

Regina blew on Brad’s lips. “O vento dos meus pulmões demandas somente a verdade. Am I truly addressing Jennifer?”

Jennifer nodded Brad’s head.

“That spell is 77 percent effective,” Regina assured the room, “so I’m confident this is indeed Jennifer.”

“Damn,” Susan muttered, “this is some spooky shit.”

“If we continue this friendship,” Regina told her, “such ‘spooky shit’ will become quite mundane.”

Susan relaxed to enjoy the show. “I hope not.”

Regina said to Jennifer, “A human vessel can only be occupied if it’s empty, and a ghost such as yourself–especially one so recently deceased–lacks the strength to force another out. A cursory glance at your belongings reveals no magical proclivity, thus leading to the only logical conclusion: you’ve been invited in. I’m curious as to why.”

“I wasn’t invited,” Jennifer told her.

Regina frowned. “Then you have me at a loss.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” Susan whispered to Jin, who shushed her.

“This is going to sound crazy,” Jennifer sighed.

“This is making me crazy,” Regina said.

“Brad sneezed,” Jennifer told her.

Regina smacked her head. “Of course!”

“Oh my God,” Susan squealed, “are you shitting me?”

“There is some truth to the old wives tale about the soul temporarily evacuating the body during a sneeze,” Regina admitted.

“Yo,” Susan asked Jin, “is she shitting me?”

“I saw it once when I was in marching band,” Jin told her. “It’s… bizarre. Kind of awesome.”

Regina turned her attention to the matter at hand. “Possession doesn’t occur by accident, Jennifer.”

Jennifer sat Brad’s body next to Susan, who scooted away slightly. “The night that I drowned, I’d been planning on telling Brad something very important. I can’t seem to leave unless I do, so I jumped in here so I could, like, write a note or make a video or something. But it didn’t work.”

“Have you tried addressing him directly?” Regina asked.

“I don’t even know if here’s here in the room or not,” she replied.

Regina turned to Jin. “Is he?”

“Bradley, Bradley, where have you gone?” he crooned; “The love of your life, she wants to move on.”

“That was weird,” Jennifer whispered.

“It gets all mundane and shit after a while,” Susan whispered back.

“There’s a sparkly blob that kind of… fits… Brad’s body,” Jin said. “That’s all I can tell you.”

“That’s all I need to be told.” Regina asked, “Jennifer, would an actual conversation with Brad satisfy you?”

“I think so.”

“Susan,” Regina said, “I require your assistance.”

Susan sat up again. “Hold up, sister. I’m here as an audience, and that’s all.”

“You don’t even know what I’m about to ask.”

“You’re going to ask me to let Brad take over my body.”

Regina smiled a little. “Have I ever told you how exceptionally clever you are?”

“You have,” Susan replied, “but buttering my ass don’t work.”

“I thought you’d want to help your friends.”

“Let Jin help my friends.”

“Jin’s musicianship is necessary to the success of this endeavor,” she told her, “and I’m the only person in the room qualified for what we’re about to do. I’ve had over five years of experience with this.”

“Five years ago, you were, like, what, thirteen?”

“I was.”

“Come on,” Susan begged, “it’s one thing to watch.”

Regina crouched in front of her and looked deep into her eyes. “Susan, I need you.”

“Gina, I’m scared.”

She stroked Susan’s cheek. “I swear on my honor that you will be safe. Please trust me.”

Susan gritted her teeth. “Okay.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Essência da Susan Young, sono.”

Susan went limp.

“Jin,” Regina said quickly, “invite Brad in, right now!”

“Bradley, Bradley, don’t be weak,” Jin sang; “Stand up, sit down, it’s time to speak.”

Susan’s eyes closed, and Brad’s opened. “Holy shit!” Susan’s voice yelped.

“Baby?” Jennifer asked, “is it really you?”

A tear scurried down Susan’s face. “Jen? It’s really you! Oh, God, Honey, I’ve missed you so much!”

“Baby,” Jennifer whispered, “I need to tell you something.”

Regina bit her lip and tapped her feet.

“I never thought I’d talk to you again!” Brad cried. “There’s so much I need to say!”

Regina began to drum her fingers on her thigh.

“Baby,” Jennifer sighed, “we’ve been together for a long time, and I’ve needed to say this, but I didn’t know how, and it was the last thing on my mind, and I couldn’t move on until–”

“Hurry this along, please!” Regina snapped.

Jennifer cleared Brad’s throat. “Look, Baby, it’s not you, it’s me…”

“What?” Brad gasped.

“Oh, come on,” Jin groaned. “Are you serious?”

Regina leaned toward him. “I’m not sure I grasp the significance of that phrase.”

Jin asked her, “Are you serious?

The Music Made Me Do It

Before he hit puberty, Jin understood the universe far more deeply than the most brilliant of theoretical astrophysicists, or the most contemplative of philosophers, or the most imaginative of sci-fi and fantasy creators. Brown dwarfs, black holes, realms of thought, or dark dimensions could not contain what he knew. Biology, geology, physics, or even language itself could not describe what he witnessed. Meditation could not ground it; math could not prove it; speculation could not conceive of it.

Jin could.

In every mirror he had ever looked into, Jin saw worlds upon worlds upon worlds, all sharing the same space, all alien beyond imagination, and all completely oblivious to each other.

All except for Jin.

The novelty of this, of course, could not last. As years faded away and adolescence kicked in, the wonders he saw became mundane. Even when he’d discovered that every creature in this infinite menagerie could hear him sing, he still preferred the excitement of high school, television, cars, cigarettes, and girls. After all, these visions were limited to reflective surfaces and had no bearing on him in any way whatsoever.

Life, however, exists to change.

That night, Jin lay on his mattress, staring at the ceiling as he had for countless hours. In the corner of his room squatted bags of clothes, boxes of books, a small fridge, and a guitar. Goodbyes had been spoken, hugs had been exchanged, and excuses had dried out. Not long from now, the sun would rise, and when it did, he would climb into his car and leave behind his childhood in exchange for university.

Enough was enough. If he was going to stay awake, he might as well entertain himself. Humming an original tune, he rolled out of bed and set foot in the direction of the kitchen. He came to a halt when he heard the gurgle coming from his mom’s bedroom.

It might be nothing; it might be everything.

Fearing the latter, he poked his head into her door. His eyes had been open since sundown, so it wasn’t difficult to make out the gray shape of his mother twitching in bed, gasping and staring at the shape sitting on her chest.

That’s all it was: a shape–a shape so dark it sucked away both light and shadow. Had Jin not been familiar with what most couldn’t see, he would have interpreted it as the silhouette of an old woman with a head of stringy hair, wearing frayed rags that either hung or flapped around. In reality, the hair could have been tentacles, the rags could have been wings, and the head could have been any number of appendages. Without a better look, who could know? What he did know is that its head–or whatever that was–hovered directly over his mom’s mouth, and she was struggling to breathe.

What he beheld made him forget that he was still humming.

The shape released his mother and swiveled its appendage–he was pretty sure that it was a head, because it behaved like one–in his direction. He backed into the hallway until he hit the opposite wall. Since moving in reverse was the only action he could fathom doing at this point, he was now pinned there. The shape glided after him until its probably-a-face nearly touched his. Out of sheer desperation, Jin tried something. He sang.

“I am so frightened, so very frightened.
My throat is tightened; I cannot think.
This is my mother, my dearest mother
That you have smothered, with hands of ink.

“Please do not pain her; please do not drain her.
It can’t be plainer, my eager plea.
If one must die now, forever lie now,
Let it be I now. Let it be me.”

Its head tilted in the gesture of curiosity that spanned every creature in every world he’d ever seen. He held his breath, expecting it to be the last one he’d ever enjoy.

Finally, it responded in a song of its own. The words, rhythm, and pitch were unlike anything that could exist, but their meaning was clear: before him was kind of a parasite that darted from world to world, feeding on air from sentient, dreaming creatures. It had music and love and a concept of self, but not enough to develop culture or a raison d’être other than hunger and reproduction. But most importantly, it never needed to kill. The only deaths it left behind were accidents borne of sickness or age. Therefore, his mother, being healthy, was safe. He sighed and relaxed.

“I see now that my mom will live.
My thanks is all I have to give.
Dawn is near; it’s almost day,
So leave us now. Be on your way.”

It swooped off into a deep shadow, never to return.

“Wow,” he whispered.

“Jinny?” his mom coughed.

“Who else would it be?”

“Definitely not my son,” she croaked, “because I didn’t raise a smartass.”

“What are you doing up?” he asked as he returned to her room with a smile.

“I just had the worst nightmare,” she replied.

“You and me both.” With his thumb, he pointed toward the kitchen. “Shall I get us some ice cream?”

She shrugged. “What the heck,” she said. “Big day tomorrow. Big changes.”