The stout woman behind the cash register stares without smiling as Audra stammers through her request.
This front room with its age-warped glass and wholesome brick, with its bolts of brightly patterned fabric and pegboard hooks weighted with packs of beads, lines up not at all with the whispers of oxy and meth supply chains that end and begin within this building.
A square of sunlight frames a stack of bed sheets printed with grinning, bespectacled animals boarding a school bus. Audra’s gaze flits from bauble to bauble as she speaks.
Before Audra finishes, the cashier’s stony exterior melts enough for her mouth to bow into a scowl.
Audra hasn’t seen Russell in eight days. A couple years ago she gave up on aiming her grandson’s life toward the light, and scaled down her hopes of keeping him alive long enough to reach full adulthood in spite of his terrible choices. Legally, yes, he was on the verge of adulthood, but there wasn’t anything like a grown man rattling around inside the skull swathed by that wavy red hair. He needed more time.
Russell claimed that a gang of younger toughs from southeast Hillcrest had it in for him because they’d caught him selling in their turf. Audra doesn’t believe Hillcrest is large enough to spawn real gangs, and some of the boys he named to her are friends of his, or they were, back when they were all in junior high.
Those boys are missing, too.
Audra stops talking. Her question dangles over silence.
The cashier does not stop scowling even as she tugs her apron straight. Concealed in a rumple until that moment, the name maude, sewn into the garment, stretches into clarity across her chest. “Why do you think I’d know a single thing about a bunch of bad apples from the city?” She waves toward the tables stacked with sewing supplies, the message embedded in her gesture: Ain’t nothing here they want.
“I never said you did.” Audra dredges up her courage. “But I’ve reason to believe somebody here would.”
Late last night, Audra attempted in her own special way to peer into this building, a former schoolhouse converted to a craft shop. She soared above the hills, descending from silvery heights in a form that physical barriers could not keep out. What she saw, when her dark-feathered head phased ghost-like through the roof, confused and unnerved her. Where even in her altered state she should have perceived floors and foundation, an abyss screamed.
The cashier’s stare flattens, loses sharpness, though Audra cannot deem it blank. The woman tilts her head ever so slightly as if listening, though the only sounds beyond Audra’s breath and pulse come from the clacking of the beaded curtain that veils the entrance to the next room.
“Well,” the cashier drawls. “Someone does want to talk to you. Follow me.”
Maude leads Audra through the curtain, out into a hall and down a flight of stairs to the basement. Carpets stitched with hyper-detailed images of jungle animals and floral lattices hang on crisscrossing clotheslines, this method of display partitioning one immense room into an exotic maze.
“Wait there,” the cashier says, pointing to a folding chair that crouches beside a drafting table. On the floor next to the chair stretches a long wooden bin filled near to the brim with buttons, their many shapes and colors a hundredfold more distracting than the packages hung on hooks in the front room. The carpets sway as the cashier steps backward into all-concealing shadow.
Confused by Maude’s disappearance, Audra cranes her neck, turns her head, wondering where her escort went, and nearly capsizes her chair at the sight of the massive, balding, pony-tailed man who has taken a seat in front of the table, not four feet away. She never saw him enter the space. He regards her with one brown eye and one green eye. The checkered blue shirt he wears must be made from enough fabric to double as a tent. Though his features are rounded, not chiseled, his upper arms look thick as tree trunks.
In her startlement she almost reveals her true self to him. The thought of what he might reveal in return keeps her in check. Her niece Leanne shares the traits that make Audra special, and the words Audra has tried to drill into that fool girl’s head return to save her at that moment. There’s things worse than men just waiting for one of us to slip up.
She’s still clutching at her chest as he shares his soft wisp of a voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” Even sitting down, he looms over her. Audra has long been used to men literally looking down on her, even Russell is almost two heads taller, but this man could hide a barrel of Russells within his frame. “I hear you’re asking after some acquaintances?”
Audra catches her breath long enough to remember her spiel. “I have a list of names.” She puts fingers in the front pocket of her purse. “Some boys who might have come in here—”
“Boys? In my shop?” The patronizing smile that warps the moon of his face nauseates her. “Only when they want to cause trouble.”
A coal kindles in her stomach, but she manages an off-hand laugh. “Some of them are like that.”
“Aren’t they all.” The shopkeeper shrugs. “A group of hooligans did sneak in here, or they tried anyway, about a week or so ago.”
Audra’s heart quavers like a mockingbird trill. She did not disclose to the cashier that her own grandson was among the missing, and every instinct tells her not to toss that morsel to this colossus. Instead, Russell’s merely one name on the list. She unfolds the note, preparing to read.
“Oh, I didn’t get their names,” he says, before she can even start. “Could you ID them if you saw them?”
“You have them on video?” She didn’t spy any cameras inside or outside the building, but her next question lodges in her craw, because the shopkeeper has undone his collar and started to unbutton his shirt. “What are you doing?” she stammers, as he exposes his chest and reaches into the gap like he intends to pull a gun out of a concealed holster.
At that same moment, a croak-screech like that of a frightened, wounded crow scrapes from somewhere too far off to make any sense if the source lay within this gloomy chamber. Audra’s heart leaps into her throat. “Sir, I’m very uncomfortable—”
What he pulls out resembles a lengthy twist of towel. One end remains tucked into the opening in his shirt. The longer she stares at it, the more leathery it looks. The end he grips swells and stretches. Maybe he’s working his fist into it, splaying his fingers, she can’t quite tell. Abruptly she realizes she’s regarding a teen boy’s sparsely stubbled face.
“He look familiar?” the shopkeeper asks. “Oh, I see he does.” Misinterpreting her gasp as one of recognition.
She shakes her head in denial of both his conclusion and what she’s witnessing.
He tucks the twisted rag back into his shirt and pulls forth another. “How about this one?”
This time, despite the sags and stretches, when the face expands Audra does recognize the boy: Dougie Melcher, used to visit Russell every week when he was ten and Dougie was eight, a buck-toothed imp with a sweet grin and a predilection for slipping into forbidden rooms and scouring drawers and dresser-tops for things like loose change. He turned on Russell about the time he reached high-school age, following along with the crowd that cast her grandson out.
Her gut urges her not to acknowledge Dougie, though perhaps her widened eyes already gave the game away.
“How about this one, then?”
The same process, one limp husk tucked away, a new one drawn out, and Audra recognizes this one too: Jeremy Johns, another former friend of Russell’s, another sweetheart turned mean. She shakes her head.
The man regards her with dispassion as he produces another, and another. That fifth time it dawns on Audra that her host has no fear of showing her these gruesome skins because he has no intention of allowing her to leave.
The face of Moochie Repperton dangles from the shopkeeper’s saucepan-sized fist. One side of the enormous man’s mouth curls upward a millimeter. “Mrs. Whorley, you’re not doing much to help me narrow down this search.”
“I haven’t seen anyone I’m looking for yet,” she says as if his disgusting method of jogging her memory doesn’t faze her at all—even though her heart is jumping.
That smile deepens. “They recognize you, though. Have nice things to say about you, even.”
“They do?” Audra’s heart jumps faster. “When did you speak to them?”
“Mrs. Whorley, you can’t possibly be that stupid.” And that’s when it hits her that he’s addressed her by name twice without her having shared that information. “Moochie, tell Mrs. Whorley what you think of her.”
“You’re a sweet old lady,” says Moochie’s voice, not much lower than it was in childhood. “You sure deserve better than Rusty.”
Audra shrinks back, the feet of her chair scraping the floor. This creep performed some sort of ventriloquist trick. “You stop that! What a horrible thing to say!”
“Mrs. Whorley, your mother hen instincts are darling. They almost make me regret that you chose to come here. You need to pay a bit more attention.” The shopkeeper raises his fist, shakes the thing dangling in its grip, which blinks and locks eyes with Audra. It’s Moochie’s head, plumped out with flesh and bone and fully alive, yet instead of a neck, twists of leathery flesh trail back to the gap in the shopkeeper’s shirt. Audra once saw a photo of an ancient sculpture, some Greek hero holding up the head of Medusa. This is exactly like that.
“What Rusty says about you is worse, ma’am,” says Moochie, as if they were chatting at the kitchen table. “He’s always like, my mamaw won’t let me do this, my mamaw won’t let me do that, she’s a dried-up old hag, she still hates my dad and takes it out on me, she makes me wish I hadn’t been born.”
A hissing rises from the bin full of buttons, but she can’t concentrate on that because Moochie’s words slice like a serrated edge into bone. How to absorb such a cruel statement from a head dangled like a sack of fruit—her mind is trying to blank, to hone in on the most insignificant details rather than accept the grotesquerie before her eyes. That statement couldn’t be true. Hate doesn’t fill Russell like that. Sure, he gets surly with her sometimes, but so did Charmaigne when she was the same age. Audra has worked so hard to keep her temper in check, she never ever wanted to drive Russell away. She can’t keep the world out, no matter how badly she wishes she could, but she can offer him respite from it.
“You’re young and hearty for a grandmother, you’d probably be quite upset to learn how some of these nasty boys think of you. Probably even more upset to learn what else they’ve gotten up to.” The shopkeeper stands, a monument to terror, Moochie’s head still clutched in one hand. Audra spies how the skin of Moochie’s forehead and the shopkeeper’s fingertips meld, no seams visible between them. “All your best efforts, all that slaving away in the cafeteria with a net over your hair and boss after boss speaking to you like a subhuman, and despite everything your grandson was going to turn out just like your daughter, or even worse, just like her boyfriend, and come to an even more horrible end than they did.”
Audra stares into Moochie’s moist brown eyes. “Where is Russell?”
Moochie answers, “He got out of line too many times, ma’am. We brought him here to straighten him out.”
Despite her mind’s best efforts at defensive denial, the pieces click together. That head in this monster’s hands isn’t some kind of puppet. She manages to shape her scream into words. “What have you done to him?”
Moochie’s head shrivels up into the shopkeeper’s arm, a grape drying to a raisin in fast-forward. The huge man’s voice rises in authentic puzzlement or a mockery thereof. “You don’t know already?” Her silence inspires him to produce another condescending smirk. “How about I show you?”
That arm gropes for Audra and her panic overpowers every ingrained instinct. All disguise jettisoned, she spreads wings and talons. Her surroundings alter so alarmingly that in the next instant she is flesh and blood again, standing with her back against one of the hanging carpets, the threads tickling her through her blouse as if the entire surface teems with ants.
The shopkeeper’s extended hand glitters, paused to hover above the chair where she was sitting the instant before. He asks her what she’s been too shocked and tongue-tied to ask him. “What are you?”
Even if she was inclined to answer, her mind is paralyzed by shock. Since she was nine, she’s been aware of others like her, gifted or cursed with two bodies, one grounded in the world of flesh, the other grounded in the far more dangerous world of spirit. Her grandmother sussed out what she was and taught her what she could about how to survive. Audra in turn saw it in her niece, Leanne. Not in her brother, or her daughter, or her grandson. It don’t choose everyone in a line, Audra’s grandmother said.
Like Audra herself, Audra’s grandmother followed the form of the raven. Leanne follows the form of the blue jay, which Audra still can’t conceive as kin to ravens and crows, though apparently they are. Many other spirit folk exist, with spiders by far the most dangerous, but Audra has never seen or even heard of anyone or anything like the monster in the fabric store basement.
The crawling carpet against her back flexes and curls, attempts to envelop her. Hopping forward puts her back in the shopkeeper’s reach, and as he grabs for her again, his fingers expand as if the skin around his bones is unrolling like tissue paper.
She becomes raven, doesn’t phase back, her wings wider than a Cadillac is long, her substance pure spirit, unimpeded by cloth, wood and cement. What was a basement opens into a hellscape. Dante’s very inferno yawns below her, glittering with microscopic malevolent stars that leap like fleas from level to level and layer. There are so, so many layers that form the slopes of this funnel.
Shrieks congeal in a single phrase, What are you? and it is the entirety of the pit that shapes this question, a throat that leads to the bottom of the world.
Good to see you again, ma’am, says Moochie. There he is, flattened like roadkill, sliding into the wall of the funnel, and Audra looses a human-sounding scream as she comprehends what the infinite sheaves and stacks of papery leather embedded in the funnel wall really are. Hides. Souls. Both at once. Her Russell is somewhere in that throat, crammed in among thousands of others, a single file of skin and agony misplaced in a nightmare cabinet.
She cries Russell’s name, but how can he hear her over the screaming of his fellow prisoners? She can’t bear the thought of the troubled boy she sheltered and raised ending his existence in this trap, not after she worked so hard to fill the wounds his father tore open with the gun he used on Charmaigne, then himself. She draws her wings closer and plunges.
From all sides of the funnel the bright motes spray toward her, hurtle through her, she can feel them questing, parasitic mites seeking purchases in her feathers, but she is spirit and they fall right through her, just as they should—but their passage burns like hot wire.
The throat addresses her. We vibrate on different frequencies, Mrs. Whorley. When I reach the right station I’ll take you apart and find out all the how and why of you. The motes leap at her in hordes, their fury riddling her through.
The pain is nothing compared to what her pain will be if she abandons Russell to this place.
Another voice, smaller, to her left and below. No! You’re going the wrong way!
Her black eyes spy Dougie Melcher’s face herniating from the wall like a balloon forced partway through a mail-slot.
Help me find him! she cries.
His words spill in a jumble but she discerns every one.
he’s not here he escaped that’s why Lenahan took us all he flew away and he made us pay we hurt him bad but he flew so high get me out I’ll help you find him
Dougie’s face peels apart, all the cut paper pieces slurped back into the wall. The funnel emits a new noise, a roar vomited from the vaults of the earth that rapidly heightens in pitch as the funnel constricts, striving to lodge her in these depths, to choke on her.
She beats her wings, working to lift herself out of the pit, through the roof of the shop and into the spirit world’s silvery sky. The predatory motes shower and sear her, a rain of embers. She has plummeted so much further than she realized. The closer the opening gets, the smaller it shrinks.
The monster that is both shopkeeper and hellmouth still hasn’t found her frequency, but as she nears the top of the funnel, the walls close in to the point where her wingspan sweeps through them, phase through the people crushed in those layers, and she’s blinded by an avalanche of memories not her own, hundreds of lives spanned out over decades, all of them terminating in an encounter with that leviathan and his collection of buttons that aren’t buttons at all.
Hope against hope buoys her as she pulls her wings free of the mire of agony and propels herself higher still. She phases through the shop’s first story, through the second, phases through the roof, the monster baying its frustration below her.
we hurt him bad
She never saw any sign that Russell was born with a spirit form. But maybe it was there, buried deep, activated by sheer survival instinct when those boys brought him here and tried to feed him to the beast.
but he flew so high
A soul-searing cry wrenches from her lungs of its own accord, for all those below she cannot save, a foolish noise that could summon predators as terrible as the one ditched below, monsters that would be on her frequency.
A croak-screech in response, the same one she heard before, far, far above.
Far more luck than skill or parental instinct brings her right to him. She praises God, praises the denizens of the Silver City, whether or not they had anything to do with it.
Impossible passages bore through the sky of the spirit world, and by some miracle Russell lies within one, more spirit than flesh, wounded in both shapes, his black Scorpions T-shirt crusted blacker with blood. More blood stains the substance that forms the passage floor.
She inspects his wound. It’s long and ragged. She thinks of the spear from the Gospel of John that pierced Christ’s side, those words about the water and the blood from that gruesome hymn she was made to sing every Sunday when she was a girl.
Surely his transmutation is what keeps him alive. In the spirit world, he is a crow, smaller than she but still a burden. She has never tried to carry anything so heavy in raven form, she doesn’t know if she can get him down.
Were he to revert fully to flesh, it would be his death—though still a better fate than what his former friends intended for him. They were consumed in his place, and consumed by their petty hate and awful addiction well before then.
If she can save him, they will have to leave Hillcrest. The shopkeeper won’t be content until he—it—has them in his collection.
Though the notion terrifies her, she knows that she will have to leave him here alone. He needs water. She needs thread and needle. He needs the wound cleaned and closed. She can’t be certain it will help, but she has to try.
She enfolds Russell in her wings. His breathing calms. She longs for a few hours of peace, to rest, to think, to plan, or simply to be with her grandson if this is all the time they have left.
Story copyright © 2020 by Mike Allen
Artwork copyright © 2020 by Kat Weaver
Two-time World Fantasy Award finalist Mike Allen edits and publishes the Mythic Delirium Books imprint. His short stories have been gathered in three collections: Unseaming, The Spider Tapestries, and the newly released Aftermath of an Industrial Accident. His novella “The Comforter,” a sequel to his Nebula Award-nominated horror story “The Button Bin,” has just appeared in an anthology of four dark long-form tales, A Sinister Quartet. He’s also a three-time winner of the Rhysling Award for poetry.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Luna Station Quarterly, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and their two birds.