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10. jackal

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EVELYN DIEDZ

I waste a second wondering how the hell this thing got ahead of me on the path.

And in the time it takes for me to think that, the thing is turning around; it’s quick, its movements broad and a little awkward. Because it’s backlit, it’s hard to make out details. But — even though I can’t see its face — I’m sure it’s looking at me now, as it wraps those long arms around its torso — a tall, skinny silhouette giving itself a hug with clawed hands.

I quickly decide I need options.

Briefly, I consider freaking myself out — to see if I can maybe start all that ‘falling’ again. Fly right past it, maybe. Get gutted, maybe. Not worth the risk to find out which. I don’t know what that’d do to me, in here; and, I don’t really want to know.

Even though the thing ahead of me isn’t coming at me just yet, I decide that maybe a retreat is in order; that I maybe ought to get myself back to where the tunnel branched – so I can take the other exit.

I turn my head away to look in the other direction of the tunnel, but there’s one of these things there, now, too: the same outline, with the same posture … and with the same oddly-backlit, self-loving silhouette.

And then, it occurs to me that it may not be ‘one of’ the things. I realize it may be the same thing, moving around in a way that’s beyond my awareness of its movement – because, in my line of work, you sometimes see that happen … and it’s never good.

Well, that hurts.

And then, the thing in front of me talks. “Hello,” says the thing.

Now, at this point, the thing’s still pretty far away from me. It’s at the edge of what I can see, fading in and out of clarity. But the voice sounds close to me. But not like the sound is carrying through the tunnel. I swear I can feel the vibrations of the words. Touching my face — like I’m feeling its breath.

And … there’s the matter of the thing’s voice. It sounds a lot like it’s a kid’s voice — high-pitched, raspy, in that particular kid-like kind of way.

It talks to me again: “You’re new,” it says. There’s a purr to that voice, too.

I don’t like it.

Then, it giggles.

I like the giggle even less.

And, what’s more, the giggle sounds — feels — like it’s coming from right behind me, like its breath is right at the back of my neck.

“I want to see you better,” says; the thing the words are coming from in front of me again, but this time from farther away than the first time it talked, and closer to where the thing is now standing.

Except, now it’s moving — in my direction; it’s taking weird, awkward baby steps that are uncomfortable to see.

And — okay, yeah — I’m not just uncomfortable. I’m afraid. I’m outright scared.

The figure takes another baby step.

I’m scared — so much so that I’m not even sure of my perceptions at this moment; feels like I can’t even focus.

The thing takes two more baby-steps toward me.

As it approaches, the figure seems to be changing before my eyes, too — shrinking and growing, leaning forward and back. It’s swaying, too — like a little black flame… seeming somehow both fragile and menacing, all at once.

See what I mean about not being able to focus? I shake off the errant thoughts. I get the urge to shake my head, too, but I resist it. So, yeah — I’m thrown by a lot of what I’m seeing.

I mean — who knows how all of this really works?

A few more baby steps from the figure, and I’m still trying to work out what role this thing could have in here.

And I’m thinking how you can never be sure of how things work in someone’s landscape.

The thing is halfway down the tunnel from me now.

“Waiting makes it better,” comes that high-pitched voice. And, yeah, I’m sure now: that’s a kid’s voice. My instinct says it sounds like a girl. But I know better than to just assume that.

And, look — I know I said this before — but it’s coming to mind, now. I’ve been in enough of them that the uncertainty itself becomes part of the routine, if that makes sense. But, even with all I’ve seen — and even with my lack of experience with priests — this place felt off to me, from the start.

And now — as the thing in front of me takes these little steps and proceeds to seriously freak me out despite everything I’ve seen before — I’m pretty sure I know why.

This thing is what’s off.

Now, if you’re one of the traditionally living, that might seem like a ‘well, no shit’ kind of thing.

But if you’ve ever been inside someone else’s landscape – and especially once you’ve been inside enough of them – then, you know it’s not always so easy to tell what belongs and what doesn’t. And, it can be even harder to figure out what’s real.

Meanwhile, as I try to figure all this out, the thing is getting closer and closer – step-by-step.

But then, the shadowy thing pauses and just seems to look at me. It’s hard to tell with a faceless thing, but I’m pretty sure it’s staring at me.

My head is buzzing. It doesn’t hurt. It feels like I’m sitting too close to a speaker at a concert.

I’m trying to regain my focus. I’m trying to figure out what this thing is — because it’s shooting my theories to hell. Because — even up to a few moments ago — I was pretty sure this thing was something Uncle Daniel built. I’d been working with the theory that maybe had something to do with him being what he is — some kind of priestly fear, some representative totem or security guard inside his head to punish or protect him, whichever he values more. I’ve dealt with priests before – and their landscapes are usually full of that kind of stuff. And I’d figured the colors from before were just bouncing around from him seeing the sunlight on the kids’ bikes in the yard outside the church earlier.

But that’s not the case. This thing is from outside. I’m sure of it now. And, that means I’ve got a new theory. And, it’s a theory I don’t like too much at all.

The thing stops hugging itself. Its arms are now reaching out, limply, toward me. As the arms extend, though, they’re also somehow pulling back. It’s like it’s reaching out for me, and at the same time those arms are getting reeled back into the thing’s body. There’s no breaking sound. No jerking motion. Nothing is tearing. Just the arms, drawing silently back into the body. Like this thing is just changing the lengths of its arms.

A shape-changer. It has to be. And, realizing that, I want to run again. Are you guessing that I’ve had bad experiences with shape-shifters? Yeah – I have. So have a lot of their victims.

But I can’t make myself run. Despite the urge to get out there, I’m staying put. And this is disconcerting, too, because there’s a really big part of my brain that’s telling me that my earlier decision was wrong. That running might be the best idea.

“You want to go,” says the thing. “Don’t go.” It resumes its slow approach. “I’m consistently told that my company is enjoyable,” it insists.

I can feel the thing’s proximity now — and not just in front of me. Like before, with its voice, the sensation of it drawing near feels like it’s all around me, coming from every direction at once. I start to panic. And I know I shouldn’t. I mean, this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this kind of sensation from other people like me, which is what I’m sure I’m dealing with here. And it isn’t the first time I’ve felt like I’m surrounded when there’s one other person in the room, too; I’ve felt that before, too. It’s not like it’s genuinely uncommon or anything. And it’s usually an illusion. But this feels real.

I don’t try to go, though. I don’t run. Because, I know how that goes.

See, I’ve found that trying to run away from someone who makes me feel like this usually just ends up with them deciding they’ve got something to prove by disappearing and reappearing all over the damn place and wasting everyone’s time.

And I’m getting the distinct feeling I don’t want this thing to have something to prove, just now – especially with the way its claws are currently just inches away from me.

I try to see if I can find its face, to try to read its expression. But I can’t. There simply isn’t one I can see; there’s only a swirling darkness where its face ought to be.

And that’s when I realize something else. My theory on how to look at the thing was wrong, too. I thought before that the more I focused on it, the clearer it was becoming to me. But that’s not it. But, this is something different from that.

It’s like this thing doesn’t want me looking at it. Because focusing on it takes more and more effort, the closer it gets. I’m feeling the overwhelming urge to look away — to see and to think of anything else.

I realize that that’s why my mind is racing — why I can’t focus.

But, you know what?

No.

I am not going to let this thing manipulate me.

So I put all my effort into keeping both my eyes and my mind on the thing. I push everything else out. I can’t let myself care about solving some mystery about what this thing is — not right now.

Now — it’s about me, and surviving.

So I stand fast and stare at the thing. “Hey — back the HELL off!” I shout. I put all the aggression I can muster into my words. I want this thing to know I’m a threat, too. I want it to know I’m as dangerous as it is.

And, in reply, the thing recoils — like I’m blowing out its black flame. The darkness appears to harden, to solidify into flakes like dried skin all along the shape of the thing. Then, the flakes become scabrous before my eyes. Then they fall in chunks onto the wet sand at our feet.

So, gross.

But now, I’m no longer looking at some shadowy thing.

I’m looking at a little girl standing in front of me, with her arms outstretched toward me. She’s about ten years old. I recognize her dark hair, the Odangos, the glitter. It’s the little girl from the yard. The one who was playing basketball with those other kids when Salat and Armando walked past them.

And then I realize that she’s even dressed like she was when I saw her out there, too.

The hell?

The expression on her face suggests she knows I recognize her. It also outright says without words that she’s enjoying the hell out of my surprise.

And yet — that feeling I’m in a really, really huge amount of danger hasn’t gone away.

Seriously. The hell?

“Rawr!” she says, still holding out her arms. She laughs, opening her palms toward me like she wants me to wait a second until she gets herself together. Then, she offers me a lazy half-wave with her left hand. “Hey,” The voice is the same — high-pitched, squeaky, like before. She affects a pretend curtsey, and then stands back up straight. “Rawr!” she says again. Then she shouts at me: “SHIHONG!”

I’m still kind of stunned.” … the hell-?” I say out loud. It’s all I can manage as I try to process the moment.

She claps her hands together once, out in front of her, before folding her fingers in toward each other. “That’s my name.  Shihong Zhu.”

“… the hell?” I’m baffled.

“Excuse me?” she says, relaxing her hands to the sides of her. She’s amused; the corners of her mouth are quirked upward. “Could you please stop swearing? Don’t be rude.”

I’m silent. I’ve got nothing.

“You could introduce yourself,” she says. “I’ll help.” She crosses her arms across her chest. “And you are?” she asks. “I know it’s written in your book, but I’m pretty sure you’re not going to just let me read it.”

“Hell, no, I won’t,” I confirm. “My name’s Evelyn Diedz.”

“Hi, Evelyn,” Shihong says merrily, lifting up on her toes and falling back onto her heels. “I’m so glad to meet you.” She sounds genuine, which puts me even more on edge. “You just gave me your name like that,” she says. “That means it doesn’t hurt you! That’s great!” She pouts. “I’m always so sad when people get hurt by their own names.”

“I guess it depends on whether they’re hurting people or not,” I say.

Shihong laughs at that, and hugs herself again like she did when she was a silhouette. “But you’re here to help the living, right?”

My fear is beginning to give way to anger. “Yeah – that’s what I do.” I’m feeling confrontational, despite the other ghost’s appearance. I don’t like her double-talk.

“Good, good. We’re here to help the living, too.”

“We?”

“You’ll see.” She gestures widely with both arms, flapping them a little. “Isn’t this place splendid?”

I’m about to answer, when a thought occurs to me. I decide to go for broke and just ask it: “How are you out there and in here, too, Shihong?”

“That’s not hard or anything.” She bites her lip. Then, “Wait — you really can’t do that? Like, not ever?”

One more time: the. hell. “Okay — okay — hold it. Time.” I flatten out both my palms and hold my left hand over my right like the referee signal. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you to find me,” she says, plainly.

I feel angry. I want at least one answer. “Then why did you-?” I stop there, and then I just hold my hands out in front of me zombie-style like she was doing before.

“I got bored waiting for you to find me,” Shihong says, quietly.

I almost hate that it makes sense. But it’s an answer. It stabilizes me a little. “Okay,” I say. “But I’m here now.” I’m still freaking out, but I decide to play along, as best I can, for the time being. I need to figure this out – along with a lot of things, really. Why she’s here down deep in the priest’s landscape. Who and what she is. Saying ‘the hell’ over is helping me vent, but it won’t net answers.

“I know!” Shihong says brightly. “And it’s so cool.” She claps her hands together again. “Hey! Do you want to maybe come meet the others?”

“Yeah, you said ‘we’ before.”

“That’s the others!” she confirms.

“Who’s that?” I ask her.

Shihong nods bouncily a few times. “We’ve been following you around since you got here,” Shihong says. Then she adds, “Hiding. Well, mostly. But first, fair is fair.” Shihong nods once, and then there’s one of those bright flashes of red light — like from before, when I was falling. And then, well — it’s hard to describe what happens right after that: it’s kind of like that empty feeling you get when your ears pop really hard. Except it’s all over my body. Like a pressure — except, that’s not quite the right word to describe it, either — is coming off of me. One I didn’t know was there.

And that’s when I hear what sounds like a distant voice — like a woman’s — calling out, as if someone is saying ‘Help! Help!’ A peacock, Jay told Gunny. Nothing more, Daniel told Jeff.

So why does the sound make me feel cold? Why does my throat have a lump in it?

“So close,” Shihong whispers to me. “Come on.  I believe in you.  As long as you believe in me, anyway.”

And then, it hits me.

There were four children.

“There ‘ya go!” Shihong says, twirling away from me, spinning around once before coming back to face me again. “Good job. I see you finally recognize me.”

There were four children, laughing at me when I passed by the fountain when I first arrived in Drodden. There were four of them, riding down Fell-Munch Road as Penny watched.  There were four of them at the Dirt Clod, with Mickey and Rick and Gunny.  There were four basketball players at First Step Church with Jeff and Salat. 

Shihong is one of them.

And then more comes to me: how the kids’ bicycles were colored red, white, black and green … the same color as those colored lights from Salat’s dreamscape. It’s the horses.  Shihong is one of the horses: those things that floated there, as big as stars, inside Salat’s dream. The things that were burning hot; those vast and terrifying horse things.

The little girl in front of me waves at me again, this time with just the fingers of her raised left hand. “Hi,” she says, as if reintroducing herself. “It’s me. Do you recognize me?”

And I’m only recognizing her now.

Except — no, that’s not accurate.

This wasn’t just me missing a key detail.

“Yeah,” I rasp.

She folds her hands together at her waist, takes a step closer and looks up at me. “I didn’t feel like there was much of a choice but to keep it from you — ’til now, anyway.” She smiles, tilts her head a little to the side. “So I just turned it off.”

She’s letting me recognize her. But I don’t know how she’s doing it.

“I really hope you don’t feel too bad about it.” Shihong says, like she can read my expression. “There was just no choice.”

My head is spinning, but the detective parts are starting to kick in. Not that I’ll let Shihong know anything of the sort. Better she think I’m still in shock — because, well, I am. Just, maybe not as much any more as I was — or that I’m letting on.

“Maybe we can end up becoming friends?”

And now, I’m realizing — back when I was joined up with Gunny at the Dirt Clod?  That other kid who was there — the one sitting with Rick, Mickey and Jay?  It’s like Gunny barely saw him.  Gunny had … just a creepy feeling in Gunny’s gut.  That was … one of them — one of the horses.  And when Jeff looked out the window at the four kids; they were the horses, too.  And it’s the same with my memories of my time joined with Salat.

But, in my memories, the kids’ faces are like the dark blobs you see after a flash bulb goes off.

Except for Shihong’s. She’s clear in every memory, now. I think back and see her there – with her shiny eyes of hers always looking right at me; she’s not looking at the person I’m joined with. She’s looking at me, every time.

And I never saw her doing it.

“Come on, Evelyn.” Shihong reaches out her left hand for me to take. She tips her head again, this time toward the path behind her. “Let’s go.”

I don’t take her hand, but I take a deep breath of the landscape’s air of nothingness. “Where are we going?” I ask.

I’m not about to surrender – but there’s no reason to tell Shihong that.

“That’s great that you get it,” she says.

“Great,” I say.

But then, as if a timer has gone off that only Shihong can hear, she looks down at her outstretched hand, dissatisfied at my not taking it. “Awwww!” she says. She holds her hand out toward me and wriggles her arm so that her hand flops limply in front of her. “You won’t take my hand?”

“Why don’t you just lead the way?” I ask her.

“Okay!” she shouts. Then, she just turns away from me. “Let’s go!” She starts skipping — yeah, skipping— down the corridor from where she originally came. Only then does she answer my question from before about where we’re going: “Oh, and we’re going to see the others!”

I feel sicker than I’ve felt since I arrived in Drodden.

She skips a few more steps away. Then, she looks back over her shoulder toward me, a sly grin creasing her lips. “You’re gonna love them.” Then she turns her attention back to the path ahead of her and goes back to skipping away from me.

And then, she disappears from my view again, into the yellowish haze.

‘Help! Help’ comes that call again, coming from the spot where Shihong disappeared.

Except now … it’s much closer.

And, this close, it doesn’t sound so much like a bird any more. The way it echoes doesn’t sound natural, or even native to this place. And, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s also a warning — or a threat. Or, you know … both.

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Published inpart 2

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