When Mr. A. Tranjay and I got back, my dad was waiting for us. He was mad I had unlocked the door. And he had found the book, the one Mr. A. Tranjay gave me. He had found it under the mattress with my translation. I wrote it in pencil on the kind of lined paper we use in school.
Heed ye well the story of Salamongue Greymouth, Waspkeeper of Hell.
Salamongue was a minor angel, a Keeper of the Word. In the great conflagration, he stood in public spaces where all could see and condemned his rebellious brethren to all who would hear him. He shouted snarling, spittle-filled insults. He was seedy. And fractious. And pretended to be noble. And when the fighting was over, he was cast over the battlements with the insurrectionists.
Oh, Salamongue remembered well that day when he fell aflame through hazy orange clouds to crash upon a land of pus and acid and to stand again, despicable and deformed, on the shores of the Sea of Despair. But where Beelzebub and Azazel sat high and fat as princes of Pandaemon, Salamongue—now called Greymouth—was kicked and chided and given naught but the hellwasp farm of Blistermead on the Venge, for it was a job no other demon would take.
Hellwasps, which Paul mistook for locusts in his famous revelation, sup on the suffering of sinners, which they collect with their bite. When they’ve had their fill, they return to their nests, where they regurgitate it into blister-like sacs. There, they concentrate the vomitus into a thick sap by beating their wings over it before sealing it with secretions from their anal glands. After a fermentation of three seasons, it reaches potency, at which time it’s collected by the Waspkeeper and given to the brewmasters, who turn it into a bitter relish that the Lords of Discord pour over their meals. It takes one drop to turn fresh meat foul and a single taste to waste a mortal man’s mind.
But the long years of tending Blistermead left their mark on Salamongue, who became even more despicable in the eons after the fall. Hellwasps are vicious, needy things, and they nipped and stung him constantly. Stray drops of their acrid vomit burned his skin, which swelled into knots and turned callous. Over the centuries, he developed cankerous growths over his joints and fingers and large humps on his face and back that looked much like the nests of the wasps he tended. His afflictions made a perfect home for them, in fact, and they burrowed into his callouses and laid their young in the very pits of his flesh.
It is said that the major demons relished most of all the mead that was fermented from the back, fingers, and knees of Salamongue Greymouth, that it was a pustulous brew, tinged with demon’s blood, that the brewmasters sealed it in the ash-lined urns of the ancient dead where it aged like fine wine, and that after a century in the cellar it turned the color of charcoal and smelled of sulfurous urine and festering skin.
So it was, every three seasons, at the time of the harvesting, the Lords of Discord made a sport of the gathering. A great horn would sound and hellhounds would bay and Salamongue would run from Blistermead and across the Venge. He knew that if he could make it to the fells across the Styx, he could disappear into the maze of narrow crypts, where the giant hounds could not follow, and the Lords of Discord would grow tired of the chase and return disappointed to the hollow halls of Pandaemon.
But if caught, Salamongue would be dragged by hook and chain down to the lowest circles of the Mad Keep and his cankers and mounds would be pierced with needles and he would be placed in a great vise and pressed like a grape, and he would scream, and what dribbled from his open sores would be collected in a fermenting vat tended by the Brewmaster himself, who watched each pressing with lips wet from smacking.
Such was the suffering of Salamongue Greymouth. Such was how he lived, with the buzzing and squirming of hundreds of tiny larvae buried in the humps and hills of his back, in his face, and in his fingers.
That was as far as I’d gotten. I didn’t know what all the words meant. Dad was mad I had hid it. I had been bad again. I was bad every day now, it seemed. I had ignored the doctor. I had run away. I wouldn’t listen. Good boys listen, he said. Why did I have to be bad? What had he done? He asked me politely to go to my room. He wanted to talk to Mr. A. Tranjay. He pretended like it wasn’t a big deal, but I could see it on his face.
I dragged my feet all the way upstairs. I stopped in the doorway to my room. I saw my toys on the floor. I had been ordered to pick them up. And do my homework. I hadn’t done either. I stared at the window. I couldn’t see the sun. It was cloudy and hazy. I stood there and stared and realized something about the symbols I had seen on the steam-covered glass. The window was clear, but in my mind I could still see them. No one had cleaned the glass, so that meant they were still there. Traced by a finger. Hidden. I was sure I wasn’t supposed to find them.
It had to be an adult who did it, I figured, because adults don’t get sent to their room and have to stare out at the world making deep sighs while their forehead is pressed to the glass so that their breath makes cool patterns on the pane, like clouds. I hadn’t been scared before. But I was now. If the steam could reveal them, I realized, that meant they were on the inside. And so whoever put them there had been in my room. I hadn’t been worried because I thought maybe they were protecting me. An adult made them and that’s what adults did, right? They protected kids. So that’s why they must be there. Even though I didn’t know why. But then I didn’t know why adults did lots of things.
But the symbols looked exactly like the ones in the book. Exactly. They weren’t traced backwards, like it showed in the instructions. That meant they weren’t there for my protection. They couldn’t be. They weren’t trying to keep something out. They were facing inside. They were keeping something in. In my room. Keeping it from escaping. Keeping it in there with me.
I looked at the dark space yawning under my bed. I looked at my closet door. Had I left it open?
I wavered at the entrance of my room until I heard my dad’s heavy footsteps on the stairs. Then I ran and jumped into bed so that whatever was underneath couldn’t reach up and get me. Dad walked in and sat down next to me. He was very sad. He said I was going to go someplace. Just for a while. He said that he’d talked to Mom and they agreed it was for the best. He said there were other kids there and good people who would take care of me. And he said he had just fired Mr. A. Tranjay, and that he wouldn’t be coming back there anymore. And that that was it, and he couldn’t talk to me about any of it now, and I was grounded and had to stay in my room until it was time to go. No exceptions. That he would bring me food and everything.
“Don’t make me lock you in here,” he said. “Please.”
Then he got up and left and I stayed in bed with the covers over me until Dad brought me dinner. I ate by myself on my bed, looking at my dark, open closet. I couldn’t play my gamepad. I couldn’t watch TV. I had to do homework until I just couldn’t do any more. I couldn’t take Wilson outside, so he just laid on the rug in my room and made sighs like he was just as bored as I was.
The doorbell rang and he ran downstairs barking. A man came, one of our neighbors, I think. I sat on my bed with my bedroom door open and I petted Betsy as I listened to them talk. I was sad because I was never going to see my friend Mr. A. Tranjay again. I liked him.
The man was handing out flyers. A kid was missing. A kindergartner, he said. A boy named Trevor.
My eyes got real big.
The man said Trevor had disappeared from his own back yard. His house was just down the street. It faced the hollow just like ours. His mom was ten yards away, bagging leaves. The man said it was like an eagle swooped down and took him. He said no one was safe. Our neighbors were organizing a search party. They were going to find the man who was terrorizing the community. The police said they had 24 hours. After that, it usually wasn’t good. The man wanted my dad to help. He said Trevor spoke with a lisp—whatever that is—and he was wearing a red Spider-Man T-shirt and blue jeans and sneakers. He said Trevor’s favorite food was strawberry ice cream and he wanted to be an ice cream man when he grew up because then he could eat ice cream all day long.
I sat on the edge of the bed. My feet dangled over the side and I didn’t care if there was something under there that was going to reach up and get me. Wilson and Betsy were on either side of me. I was supposed to be saying goodbye. My backpack was on the floor. It was all ready. My dad had packed it. Everything I needed. Except my pets. I needed them. And Mom and Dad. I needed them, too.
I was going to the doctor.
I looked at Wilson. Wilson looked at me back with his big brown eyes.
“They’re not gonna find him,” I said. “Trevor.”
Wilson said he knew.
“My secret will do terrible things. I stopped it before. But there’s no one to stop it now.”
Wilson said he knew that, too.
“What should I do?” I asked.
Wilson said I was a good boy and I should do what was in my heart, even if it made my dad angry.
I asked why I had to lose my parents. Why Mom left. Why Dad was sending me away.
He said he didn’t think there was a reason, just like there was no reason his people had hurt him so bad his fur didn’t grow back.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
Then Ribbon jumped onto the bed. I called him that because he had a long gray stripe on his side. He was an angry cat. His people had left him and I found him. He walked to the window. He went up on his hind legs and scratched on the glass over and over like he wanted to get out.
“Silly cat,” I said.
I reached for him. Then I saw there was something on the window sill. I unlocked the window. The sky was overcast. I couldn’t see the sun. It would be dark soon. The air was cold and still. I thought I heard something. But I couldn’t see behind me. Maybe my secret wasn’t under my bed or in my closet but on the roof.
There was a blueish pebble on the sill, about the size of a single peanut. I picked it up.
A scratch. Behind me. Now I knew there was definitely something on the house. I turned my head and looked up the sloped roof.
It was the white raven.
From my old neighborhood. It had found me.
It made a sound. Not a caw like a crow but a pleasant call. It was a big bird. Then it flapped its wings and flew to a nearby tree. The branches swayed when it landed. It called again. I looked at it and I could just tell. It wanted me to follow.
I looked back toward my bedroom door. I could see the stairs and the pictures on the wall. My dad was still talking with our neighbor on the front porch, right in front of the door. The back door was locked and Dad had the key.
I had to help Trevor. I was the only one who could. But I knew I couldn’t do it alone. It was too big for me. And there was only one person who knew about my secret. And about the stag and everything. There was only one person who believed me. Only one person in the whole world everywhere.
And the raven said she would take me to him.
I went to my closet and got an old pair of sneakers that didn’t fit me anymore. It hurt a little to put them on. I got the warm scratchy sweater from the bottom of my bottom drawer and the coat and gloves that my dad had packed in my backpack. He had lots of things in there. Good things to have for a trip, like snacks and my night light. He was a good packer. When I packed, I always forgot my toothbrush or my underwear or something.
I put on my backpack and climbed onto the roof. Pringles started barking at me, but I shushed her. I shuffled along the outside of my room to the place where Dad had been putting all the leaves that blew into the yard. I scooted on my butt to the edge and jumped. I was scared at first but it was real fun.
I left a note on my bed. It said:
I’M SORRY I HAVE TO BE BAD ONE LAST TIME
I followed the white raven down Newcombe Street and under the big freeway but instead of turning left to go to the library, we turned right and walked past McDonald’s and a bunch of other places I had never been until we got to a little shopping center. The asphalt was old and had a bunch of holes and cigarette butts. There weren’t many cars. There were big piles of snow in the corners from when the plows came and it all sat there not melting. It was dark now.
The raven flew down a little street that ran along the far side of the shopping center and landed on a low sign that said: Midnight Gardens Mobile Home Community. There wasn’t any pavement. Just a dirt driveway with gravel and puddles. His name was written in marker on a white strip on the door of unit number five. It wasn’t Mr. A. Tranjay. It was spelled E-T-R-A-N-G-E-R. I felt stupid. Like a dumb kid who couldn’t even spell right. Like there was no way I could ever stop my secret from hurting anyone else and I should just give up and go home and go to the doctor and not try to be the good kind of bad anymore but just the regular kind like all the other kids.
I sniffed. It was cold and my nose was running. I reached in my pocket for tissues. Dad was a good packer. I wished he could have come with me. Someone had spray-painted red symbols on the ground all around. They were just like the ones on my window. The raven stood on a yellow plastic mailbox full of colorful junk mail. She called. She was a big bird. It was loud.
I was about to turn around and go home when the door opened.
And there he stood. He was worse than before. A lot worse. He was dressed in sweatpants. He had a cane. He couldn’t hold it still. He could barely stand. There was a knife in his other hand. It had a thick blade and looked like it was made of stone. It was red. He held it like he was expecting a fight.
I looked up at him. “It has a little boy named Trevor who likes ice cream and doesn’t say his S’s right. He’s in kindergarten.”
He looked at me. He looked at the raven on the mailbox.
She called again, softer.
“I didn’t think you were getting involved,” he said with his head lowered. He wasn’t talking to me.
But the raven just flapped her wings and flew away.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.