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The Good Book Of Bad Stories

Bonnie Aubigney

Copyright 2018


Distributed by Smashwords


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorised retailer. Thank you for your support.


Contents

Two Exorcists In A Hotel Room In Nimben

Darling, summer is no better

For A Good Time, Summon…

Lost at sunset, found at dawn

Exorcist

Lycanthropia

In the light of the full moon

The Time Traveller's Boyfriend

Letterbound

A thirst, maybe

This body was born from death, all it can do is die


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Two Exorcists In A Hotel Room In Nimben

Two exorcists in a hotel room in Nimben, that’s the joke. Honour doesn’t have much of a sense of humour and spends most of her time reading books and practising her poker skills on whatever couple have moved in down the hall this week, at all other times living hopelessly disconnected from the world. Obedience, on the other hand, loves a joke. Ask her about the priest and the cheese grater. Ask her about what her father, a man of few words, used to say to her.

The cousins spend time, as they are wont to do, scamming money from yobbos and listening to the police scanner apps on their phones, waiting with baited breath, Honour playing the same Lana Del Rey song on repeat for fourteen hours a day loud enough that Obedience can hear it through Honour's ear buds. Obedience sharpens her Bowie knife, relishing the shink, shink sound it makes as she runs the blade across the whetstone. Her back still hurts from two days ago, when a demon threw her into a bookshelf with its mind powers, and then the bookshelf fell on her, putting her out of action until Honour dealt with the demon and came to Obedience's rescue. None of these things are all that funny, even in retrospect.

Honour's eyes bore into her from where she's sitting against the wall to where Obedience sits on the edge of her bed. Obedience's feet hurt, and she's still sore, physically and emotionally, from the last job, and she doesn't have it in her to wait until Honour spits out what's bothering her, so she sighs and puts down her knife. It's sharp enough, anyway.

"What," Obedience says, and their eyes lock, Obedience's fierce brown and Honour's dull grey, widening at being caught.

Honour takes her earbuds out. "I was just thinking," she says, the same way she starts every sentence. I was just thinking, or maybe it's in your best interest to, or have you thought about…? as though she's an office assistant running errands, not someone who's stabbed a demon's eye out with a spear dipped in holy water. "Do you need to take a break? Because it's totally okay if you need to take a break."

Obedience scoffs. "Why would I need to take a break?"

"You've kind of been…" Honour stops to choose her words, but before she can continue, Obedience's phone lights up with a message.

"It's Iolanthe. There's a job in Mullimbimby, at least three demons. Wants to know if we can swing it."

A frown makes itself known on Honour's face. "Of course we can, but do you really think that's a good idea?"

Obedience stares at her. "To do our job? Yeah, I think that's a great idea."

"No I mean, doing a job with Iolanthe."

Obedience shakes her head. "Because of the fire spirit thing? We were barely singed."

"It's called an ifreet, and no. I meant because you two were sleeping together."

Obedience sighs and pulls her boots towards her with her toes. "Oh, do you know what that is now? I didn't even have to teach you, you're learning on your own."

"I don't think it's a good idea to get involved with hunters."

"What, because we're exorcists? It's not like it's the Sharks vs the Jets." Obedience laces her boots up with a little more force than is necessary.

"I'm not talking about coexisting peacefully."

"Then I don't know what you're talking about."

Honour looks even more concerned, but she pulls on her jacket and slips into her joggers, ready in less time than it takes Obedience to look for the keys, and she doesn't mention it again.

The drive takes a little over an hour, and it's scenic. This part of the country can have its upsides, despite the town they've come to call a home base. For some reason, Nimben tends to be at the centre of a lot of demonic activity, enough that Honour expresses that they should think seriously about setting up real estate.

The job begins with a church on fire, and ends with the church even more on fire. Between Honour, Obedience, Iolanthe and some hunter from interstate, they take out the three demons with minimal damage to the surrounding town's structure and people. It's hard to say an incantation when your throat is being crushed by a metal pipe, but between the holy water, rock salt, and silver talismans they trap the demons with, they manage to hold them off enough to send them back to hell.

The bodies of the possessed crumple, at least two of them dead. What happens to them when they become possessed isn't pretty—it leads to a lot of blood coming out of orifices and sulphur in their lungs—and rarely do people survive.

Iolanthe and Obedience exchange a grin once the metal pipe falls and Obedience isn't trapped against the church wall four feet off the ground, and it's just like old times. "Io," Obedience says, although her throat strains with it. She coughs and rubs it until it's back to normal.

Iolanthe turns to the other hunter. "This is Obedience and Honour King, the best in the business. Girls, this is Rembrandt."

The hunter steps up to shake Obedience's hand. "Your mother really named you Obedience?"

"She would've named me after my father, but Passive Aggressive Psycho doesn't have quite the same ring to it."

"Let me guess," Rembrandt says to Honour, as if he's one to talk, "you got another cousin named Nobility."

"No, but I got two fists named Keep Making Jokes and We'll See Who's Still Laughing." Obedience loves a joke, but not at Honour's expense. Rembrandt puts his hands up as if to say, no harm, no foul, and Obedience turns her attention back to Iolanthe. She's got a new scar above her eye and she's six months older, which is about three years for a hunter, but she's still as sturdy as ever, still as beautiful. They wait for the fireys to de-flame the church before they head into town for a drink, and all the while Honour shoots them suspicious glances as if they're going to rip their clothes off right there in the street.

Honour's not much of a drinker, but between the other three they put away most of two bottles of bourbon, Iolanthe and Obedience reminiscing about jobs they've done together and sharing new stories.

"You got a mouth on you," Rembrandt says after Obedience's third dirty joke about the old man and the cookie.

"I wanted to join the debating team in high school," Obedience says, sucking back another shot. "But someone talked me out of it."

It's as good as it ever is when they catch up, and when they score a room at the nearest motel, Honour is the only one who bats an eye, telling Obedience she's headed back to Nimben with the promise that Iolanthe will drive her cousin back there tomorrow, shaking her head in disappointment. Obedience is too drunk to notice, and in the morning she has no regrets. She never does.



"It's what we do," Obedience says, one night in Nimben after a few drinks and another job with a hunter from the Gold Coast. "It's like… team bonding. Blowing off steam."

"Right," Honour says, because it's not like she has to believe her cousin all the time, just because she was right about the demon possessing Honour's dad all those years ago. Obedience doesn't know everything, and she sure as hell doesn't always get it right.

"Hunters, that's how they are. And we're kind of hunters, too. Just a specific type of hunter. You should try it sometime. Getting laid might cheer you up." She hiccoughs and rolls onto her back to muse up at the ceiling, and Honour stops paying attention after drink number six.



They get chased by a demon hound in Stanthorpe, its jaws snapping, dripping blood from its mouth, but they manage to kill it with an iron blade dipped in holy water and salt. After years of this lifestyle, Honour is no longer shaken by the things she's seen, but that doesn't mean they're any less gruesome. They bury the dog, bigger than a mastiff, in the graveyard it was haunting, the both of them covered in blood and dirt by the time they're finished.

It's amazing they haven't died yet.



Obedience's mum, Honour's maternal aunt, was always so proud of her. When she dropped out of school, Constance King used to say, "she's doing her own thing," as if that made up for the years of failed classes and truancy, because Constance King believed in formal education even less than Obedience did. Constance was pregnant by the time she was sixteen, and since her catholic school kicked her out and no other schools would take her, she had to make her own way in the world. She made a living selling home-made goods at markets, dragging Obedience out of bed at 3 am to travel there and spend the whole day haggling over the price of a jar of jam. Looking back on it, Obedience wouldn't trade anything for a mum like that, just as she wouldn't trade her life now, living out of a shitty hotel in Nimben with Honour.

Iolanthe joins them for a few more hunts, crashing in their hotel room, getting another one next door when she and Obedience aren't too tired to go for a round.

There's not a lot of money in their line of work, so they make it where they can, doing market research surveys for $35 a pop and advertising services on TaskRabbit where Obedience does some renos and gardening for six months when the demon business is slow and Honour gets back into personal training. They have a system, and it works for them.



Things slow down for a bit, and she enjoys their downtime, even if she's hypervigilant to any threat waiting around the corner. She can't get used to it, because that's how people get hurt.

Honour kind of gets used to having Iolanthe around, but the surprising change is Obedience. She's always one for a joke, but now they've lost their hard edge, they're more pleasant, they're jokes that Honour likes hearing.

But when a demon, two hellhounds, and, of all things, a curupira, bring a group of hunters into town, it all comes to a head. They finish the job with minimal bloodshed on their side, and they head to the bar to unwind.

One of the hunters—a younger girl named Ali, with green eyes and a tan—buys Honour a beer, which she refuses.

"I don't really drink," she says, and Ali sniffs, takes the beer back, says, "Your loss," and moves on.

It's a few hours later when Honour sees Iolanthe leave with the hunter, and she glances at Obedience to see if she's noticed, too. "It's what hunters do," Obedience said, keeps saying as if somehow that will make it right, but she doesn't look like she's in the mood to hear her own words repeated back to her.

The next day, the hunters leave town, and Iolanthe goes with them. After that, Obedience isn't really in the mood to tell jokes anymore.

Darling, summer is no better

The thing people kept telling Nina about pregnancy that she didn’t believe it until she experienced it is just how hard it is. It was hard when she was two months pregnant, it was hard at five months, and it’s even harder at eight months, when her boobs are leaking and she can’t get comfortable enough to sleep for more than two hours at a time.

She can’t move around as much anymore. She tested the limits of her body for the first few months until flying yoga became too much, and now she just goes to the bathhouses for a few hours a week. They’ve been saving her life, but she looks so weird floating in the water, like a cartoon animal that swallowed an exercise ball that’s now sitting in her stomach.

When she drops the packet of diapers she’s holding in the aisle of the supermarket that gives her anxiety to turn down, she considers leaving it there and picking up another one, or just leaving the store altogether. It isn’t enough that she has an alien growing inside her that saps all her energy and makes her breakout from the stress of single-motherhood, she can’t even pick up anything she’s clumsy enough to drop. While she’s making her decision to be rude or to not be embarrassed, someone appears out of nowhere beside her.

“Let me pick that up for you.”

The girl—woman, about Nina’s age—with bright blue hair hands her the diapers with a smile that Nina can’t help but return, despite how lousy she feels. It’s nice to be reminded that there are genuine people in the world, even as a yet-to-be-person tries to kick their way out of her stomach. Even though she’s used to it, her pain must show, because the woman steps forward with her hands outstretched, as if to catch her.

“Are you okay? Do you need to go to the hospital?”

Nina laughs a little, which eases the pain for a couple seconds. “No, no, I’m fine, but that’s nice of you. Just kicking.”

The woman’s eyes widen, and Nina prepares herself for the inevitable question, is your husband with you?, before the woman’s actual question catches her off guard. “Can I feel?”

“Oh,” Nina says, delightfully surprised that she doesn’t have to expose herself again as the husbandless wonder.

“I’m sorry, is that so weird? That’s probably a really weird thing to ask, I’m so dumb.”

Nina can’t help but laugh at the way this woman becomes flustered at herself. It’s adorable, and Nina has a thing for adorable. “It’s okay, you can feel.” She takes the woman’s hand and holds it to her own stomach; Nina can smell her perfume and maybe the baby can pick up on that, because they start kicking like crazy.

“Oh, wow. I’m Henrietta, by the way, but friends call me Hatty.” Oh, so Hatty, then. “This is so cool. When I was a kid all my aunties were pregnant at the same time and would let me feel their bellies when the babies started kicking, so this this is just like being twelve again.” A huge smile overwhelms her features and Nina feels something other than the baby’s kicking pick up in speed.

“Nina,” she says, then, clearing her throat, “my name is Nina.” It’s only then that she notices Hatty’s uniform and her name tag. “You work here?”

Hatty smiles again. “Yep, just while I work through university. You know, I feel like I’ve seen you before. Are we in class together? Probably not, I think I would’ve remembered a beautiful pregnant chick taking my Introduction to Criminal Law class.”

“I could have been wearing oversized sweaters the whole semester.” Nina chooses to overlook the ‘beautiful’ part. Maybe Hatty is just being friendly. Some of the other women in her mothers groups said they experienced heightened levels of physical attraction to their husbands, or, as they liked to put it, “Being uncontrollably horny all the time,” but Nina finds she’s more romantically aroused—she wants company. She isn’t lonely for sex, she’s lonely for love, and Hatty is too charming, too nice, for Nina not to feel anything for her.

“Then I’m not just going insane! How do you find torts?”

“Not as filling as sweet breads.”

Hatty pulls a face at Nina’s lame joke, and Nina hopes she didn’t scare her off. “I really have to get back to work, but it was nice meeting you, Nina.”

“Likewise,” Nina says. As she watches Hatty amble back to the counter, adjusting things on shelves, the baby starts kicking again. “I know,” Nina says, rubbing her belly.



The next time she sees Hatty, it’s a few days later at a cafe around the same area in West End. As soon as she sees Nina and her enormous pregnant belly that she’s saddled with for at least another month, Hatty calls her over. She’s with friends, two women around their own age, and other women who seem older. Nina lost most of her friends around the time she’d started showing, so she envies Hatty a little, that she had those connections. Hatty’s hair is blonde now, with dark roots that actually look good instead of like terrible regrowth.

Nina almost leaves again, because she looks a mess, it’s hot and she’s sweating through her t-shirt, and she doesn’t want to intrude on Hatty’s lunch, but Hatty perks up and motions for her to come over.

“Henrietta,” Nina says, “hi, I wasnt sure if you remembered me.”

“Oh, it’s just Hatty.” Hatty’s smile emphasises the apples of her cheeks. “But of course I remember you.” She says it sweetly, innocently.

She probably means she remembers Nina’s stomach. It’s hard not to remember a five-foot-two woman who’s almost as wide as she is tall. Her thighs rub together now; it’s uncomfortable wearing a skirt but it’s also too hot not to. The weight she’s put on is the kind her manager has told her to shed but her doctor’s told her to keep, and she’s torn in two ways about whether she has the kind of money to continue her lifestyle without doing a bit more modelling on the side. Apparently, there’s a market for it. She wants the best for her child, but those two things seem mutually exclusive.

Hatty’s friends are even more beautiful up close and Hatty introduces them. Josephine has the cheekbones of an actor and a cupid’s bow top lip, but gives Nina a look and not much else. She must not be into kids. The rest of Hatty’s friends aren’t as eccentric as she is, they all have normal haircuts and their chic office clothes clash with Hatty’s crop top, overalls, and Stussy cap. She sticks out, but in a good way, in a way where Nina wants to show Hatty to her own friends, the kind of people who think wine tasting is an interesting hobby, and say, “This girl has something you never will”. Nina’s only got a few years left of modelling in her, if her pregnancy goes well, but Hatty could actually go places.

“Let me buy you something to eat,” Hatty says, and motions to the waiter for a menu.

Growing up poor, Nina would never refuse free food at the same time she feels the shame necessary to hide it, but—she’s not poor anymore. She has a house in New Farm, and all the time before the baby is born to explore boutiques and coffee shops. She’s unemployed, technically, as much as she ever could be employed when the majority of her last two years was spent on one-time-only contracts; she’s earned enough that Hatty doesn’t have to buy her lunch, but it would be impolite to refuse.

Hatty turns to her, blonde hair trailing over her shoulders. “What are you in the mood for?”

For the past three weeks, Nina’s smelled sizzling beef everywhere she’s gone. Even at home, where no meat resides purely out of her inability to cook it, she’s smelled it, tasted it, craved it. The fat popping in the frying pan. The way the juices leak from the meat. The firmness of it as it fries. She’s wanted it all.

“Burger,” she says. “Meaty, juicy burger.”

As she bites into the burger, she can feel herself grow strong again, and she can feel how happy her baby is, kicking the walls of its cage hard enough she doubles over. Hatty puts a hand on her arm.

“Are you okay? Is the baby kicking again?”

Nina nods. “Nothing to worry about. They do this, it’s no big deal.”

“You look like you’re in pain.”

Nina laughs, but she feels fine. “I’m just tired. It’s harder to take care of myself when I can’t get more than two hours sleep in one go.”

Hatty smiles like she’s trying not to laugh. “I know what you need, a Snoogle body pillow. Fix you right up.”

Nina makes a mental note that she’ll probably only remember when she’s lying in bed trying to get to sleep, sans Snoogle body pillow. “I’ll get right on that,” she says. Hatty’s hair shines in the summer sun, like a halo, and Nina is absolutely smitten.



Jerry is a nice guy. He’s probably the best guy. The problem with Jerry is, it was never going to work between them. His hair is too blonde and scruffy, Nina used to tell herself, and his music career is never going to take off. His hair is still scruffy, as is his beard, and three years after they started dating his music career is still stagnating at best. She listens to the mixtapes he sends her because she’s never honest about her opinions, and because it’s easy music to listen to.

He smiles the dopey smile of someone in need of a heart attack to wake him up. He must be in love again.

“Christie’s really great, you’d love her. She’s into pottery and making her own earrings.”

“Uh huh,” Nina says, through a mouthful of poached egg and brioche. “Does she know your former fiance is pregnant with your child?”

Jerry makes a face like it’s gauche to bring that up. “We met a week ago, don’t you think that’s a bit soon?”

“It’ll be too late in a month when you have an actual baby.”

His expression turns sheepish. “You know I love you, right?”

Nina rolls her eyes. “Yeah, babe. I do. I’m not giving you any more money.”

“I didn’t ask.” He has the gall to act offended. “But we haven’t even sorted out how this co-parenting sitch is going to work.”

Nina puts down her knife and fork. “You’re right, we haven’t. So, let’s talk about it.”

“Right now?”

“You brought it up.”

Jerry takes a breath, gearing up for what is no doubt a long one, and Nina braces herself. “I really think I should be a big part of our baby’s life, because a kid needs a dad, you know, and like, I want to. I really want to. You know I was down for staying together, but you didn’t want that, and I totally respect that. Because I’m a feminist.”

Nina rolls her eyes again but it’s more endeared now. “Sure, go on.”

“Right, well. Let’s say I take a couple days during the week, and maybe every second weekend, how would that work?”

Nina mulls it over for a few seconds. “What about Christie? Or Annabella? Or Jennifer? All these girls you date, it’s confusing just for me let alone a baby.”

“Simple: I won’t invite them over when I’ve got her.” He spreads his hands like it really is that simple, and Nina wants to believe him, she really does.

“You could really handle a whole weekend with just you and a baby?”

Jerry nods, more excited than she’s ever seen him. It almost makes her want him back. Almost.

“Babies are awesome! I’d love to spend time just me and our baby, are you kidding?” He’s serious about it, Nina can tell by his facial expressions. He’s like a golden retriever with how animated and easy to read he is, vibrating with energy that he needs to run around in the backyard for a while to shed.

That doesn’t mean Nina doesn’t have her reservations. He was never that mature while they were dating, and aside from how enthusiastic he is, he hasn’t made any significant changes to his lifestyle in order to accommodate a baby.

“You’re going to have to get a job,” she says, trying not to sound like her own mother, “and baby-proof your apartment.”

Jerry nods vigorously. “Done.”

“Already?”

“No, I mean, I can do it. It’s figuratively done.” He lays his hands out on the table, leaning forward slightly. “I’m ready for this. Let me prove it to you.” After all these years he hasn’t stopped wanting her approval, and maybe that’s what’s going to get him through. He could end up being as good a dad as he is a friend.



29 weeks. The skin on her body has shed and she would be colder if it weren’t the height of summer. The hair on her scalped has lengthened, as though she’s dead and her skin is shrivelling.

Sweat slides between her breasts and down the dip of her spine, her body overheated to a degree that makes it uncomfortable to do anything in humidity such as this. The rain has made it somewhat more bearable by bringing the temperature down several degrees, but the humidity. Nina lounges around her apartment, waddling back and forth from the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedroom, dreading the day while also anticipating it. It’s happening, soon. She’ll be a mother, finally.

It’s only mid-afternoon when she gets a text from Hatty, whose number she shoved into Nina’s phone the first chance she could get, a string of emojis followed by an announcement that Fall Out Boy are coming back to Brisbane and is she going to get on that?? Because Hatty is down and Nina should come along.

If I get too excited, Nina texts, the baby might just fall out.

True, Hatty responds, a few seconds later. Wanna hang?

Nina looks at the state of herself: clothes she slept in, unwashed hair, pit stains. She does, because it’s Hatty, and because she’s lonely, but at what cost? The energy for a shower and a proper meal, not just spinach leaves pulled from the packet and shoved into her mouth.

Do I have to leave my apartment?

I could just bring you some food and we could hang at your place

I’d like that

Nina texts Hatty her address and waits, lying curled in the sun shining through her window like a cat, revelling in it.

For A Good Time Summon…

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, a warlock with a depletion of magic must be in need of a soul to siphon it from. The soul need not be in good condition. A depraved enough warlock will attempt to siphon magic from any soul in order to replenish their own magic. Those with The Gift must never be too careful when walking home alone at night.”

Meke sighs as Hyejin closes the book with an eyebrow arched and a meaningful look shot at him across the counter. “I’ve heard this story before. Next.”

“But do you believe it?” Hyejin asks. “That’s the question.”

Meke rolls his eyes and goes back to pulverising chrysali with his pestle and mortar. “You know, my mother used to read that book to me as a kid. She was just as superstitious as you.”

Hyejin scoffs. “I don’t think it’s superstitious to not want your magic to be sucked out by a dark wizard.”

“I’ve been working in this apothecary shop for nearly six years and there hasn’t been a single credible mention of a warlock, let alone one sucking out someone’s magic. Besides,” Meke says, trying his best not to sound upset about it, “I don’t have any magic, my mother made that very clear around the time she stopped reading me that book. No evil, scary warlock would want me.”

Halfway through his speech Hyejin had started going through the vials on the counter, sorting them into consistency and messing up the order Meke had put them in. “You still have your looks,” she says. “Don’t let anyone take that away from you.”

He takes the vials off her and puts them back in their places. “Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”

Hyejin pulls her phone out of her bag. “I do, actually. I have a date in ten minutes. She’s cute, she’s blonde, she has dimples, she’s the whole package.”

Meke tries not to show his jealousy at her plentiful and abundant pool of dating options, the perpetual wheel of choice that rotates people in and out of her life faster than Meke can even look at a man, but it must show because Hyejin pouts, squeezes his face, and says, “Deary, we’ll find you a man.”

“You know you look an ajumma when you say stuff like that,” he says, just to see the way her gaze sharpens and she bares her teeth. He’s glad for the counter between them but she’s probably not above reaching across it to throttle him. “And of course, just look at me. I’m gorgeous.”

“Just think about it: he’s waiting for you right now. Better get yourself sorted out before you meet him.” She makes her exit with that, the tail of her satin dress snaking out the door behind her. His hand, still mashing the chrysali into a fine powder, makes a particular violent stab which sends the mortar crashing to the ground, spilling its contents all over the floor. So, it’s going to be one of those days.

He’s kneeling down and brushing it up when the door slams against the wall and someone rushes in, sending the books on the shelves flying as they bump into the aisles on the way to the counter. Meke doesn’t have time to move out of the way before the person jumps over it and crashes into him, knocking them both down.

He’s not one to curse, but, “What the fuck,” Meke says, his head clouded with the pain of colliding with the stone floor. It takes him a minute to focus on the body in front of him, which has a shock of white-blonde hair, combat boots, a thick coat, and rings adorning each one of their fingers. He sits up, looking as dazed as Meke feels but not as much as Meke would like, a hand on his head where he presumably bumped it. “Who are you? Why are you in my shop?”

“Shh,” the stranger says, gaze flicking towards the door. “They’re coming.”

Meke follows it, but all he sees is the mess the stranger made of his store. He can feel a lump start to form on the back of his own head already. “Okay, someone’s after you, that’s cute. Get out.”

“Shut up, you’re gonna get me arrested.” His outer appearance is gruff and affronting, but there’s a note of panic in his voice.

“Arrested by whom?”

Just as he says it, someone knocks on the door. He glances back at the stranger, whose eyes are wide and pleading.

“International Wizarding Federation,” comes a voice from the other side of the door. “Open up.”

In that moment Meke feels something stronger than anger at the stranger who messed up his store and gave him a head injury. He gets to his feet and marches towards the door, overstepping upturned books and smashed vials. He composes himself for a second with his hand on the doorknob, and when he opens it, he’s greeted by the faces of the two people he detests most in the world.

“Meke,” Horo says, a smirk on his face that Meke feels the urge to smack off. “We haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Well, that’s because Meke doesn’t really get involved in wizarding business, do you,” Han says, in a way that’s not really a question but more pointing out a character flaw.

It’s not that Meke hates these two in particular, it’s that he hates all international wizarding law enforcement in general, and these two just happen to sum up everything he hates about them.

“Nope,” Meke says. “No wizarding business here.”

“Well that’s fine,” Horo says, “but we’re not after wizards.”

“Wizards would be too easy,” Han says.

“Today, we’re after a warlock. Haven’t seen one around here, have you? About your height, light hair, wearing an ugly coat.”

Meke takes a moment before replying. He’s harboring a fugitive, but he’s standing in front of the kind of people who put his grandfather through misery his entire life, and stopping them from getting what they want. It’s a sick kind of satisfaction, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.

“Can’t say I have,” Meke says, with as even a tone and as much hostility as he can muster.

Horo and Han don’t look convinced. “Mind if we take a look around?” Han asks. He’s leaning so far in the doorway he’s practically inside, which is as far as he can get in. Meke’s read up on all the wizarding laws, and he’s particularly fond of the one stating wizards can’t legally enter premises owned by a human without that human’s explicit permission.

“Actually, I do. The place is a mess. The King twins got in and pulled all the books off the shelves again.”

They exchange a look, but short of arresting Meke the beloved neighbourhood apothecary himself, there’s nothing they can do about it. “Harboring a warlock is a serious offense, but you know that.”

“I do know that,” Meke says. “But since I’m not, and I have a shop to tidy, I’m going to say goodbye and close up. If you’ll excuse me.” He closes the door on them and leans against it. The rush he feels at the lie and what he’s done fades almost instantly when he looks around at his store, and catches a glimpse of the warlock’s hair poking above the counter. “You might want to pick a better hiding place,” he says, after he locks the door and comes back over.

The warlock glances up at him. “Thank you,” he says.

“You need to get the hell out,” Meke says.

“What I need are supplies.”

“Find a different shop.” Meke can’t believe he’s arguing with a warlock. The day started off so normal.

“I need an apothecary shop. I’m injured. Where’s your turmeric paste?”

“Can’t you just buy that at the grocery?”

“And I need chrysalis powder.”

Meke laughs despite the gravity of the situation. “You’re sitting in the chrysalis powder.”

The warlock looks confused before he glances down, touches the remains of the chrysali with his fingers and swears. “You’re an apothecary, you have to help me.” Before Meke can object with what he can and can’t do, the warlock stands up and opens his coat to reveal the remains of a shirt and a three-centimetre thick gash across his chest that’s still oozing.

Meke immediately steps back. “What you need is a doctor to disinfect that and stitch it up.”

“It’s a magical wound, it can’t be disinfected by a human doctor.”

“A healer, then.”

The warlock shoots him a look. “Not sure what you’re not getting about the whole, I’m a warlock on the run from the law thing.”

Meke feels defensive about his intelligence being called into question, especially by a warlock, who, as far as he’s heard, aren’t all that bright themselves. This one mustn’t be if he’s almost been caught. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Forget it, I’ll do it myself.” He starts going through the vials on the counter, which aren’t of any use to him anyway. What he needs is a healing potion; Meke keeps a small stock of it out the back, but he’s not about to share that information. As he watches, the warlock looks around, stretches to reach more vials, and hisses through his teeth at the way the motion pulls at the gash.

“That wound is too big, and if it’s magically inflicted, nothing I have is going to fix it.”

“If you’re going to be of no help at all, could you at least shut up about it?”

“Fine.” Meke crosses his arms and leans back against the shelves as the warlock fixes himself a remedy to a gaping hole that is clearly unfixable by simple pastes and powders. He collects specific ones and pours them into a bowl, a mixture that won’t do anything and is just wasting Meke’s stock. But then the warlock pulls down a vial of lithium and another of iodine and pours those in, too. “I told you, nothing—” Meke starts, before the mixture sets off a shower of sparks that they both shield their eyes to. It’s over in a second, but it’s still spectacular. “Woah.”

The warlock smirks. “What, never seen any real magic before?”

Meke can’t say he’s not inspired. Clearly, he still has a lot to learn. The warlock takes off his coat and the remains of his shirt and starts slathering the balm onto the wound. He’s skinny, Meke notices, whipcord thin. Not thin like Meke is, Meke who has power to his body, muscles toned through practice and exertion, two hours a day at the gym, but the warlock look like he hasn’t eaten a decent meal in weeks. Maybe that’s what fleeing from the law does to you. He winces his way through applying the mixture, breathing heavy by the time he’s finished, and leans against the counter.

“What’s your name?” Meke asks, the words slipping out before he can stop them.

“Jaylen,” he says.

“Just ‘Jaylen’? I thought you’d have a cool warlock name that others fear to speak.”

Jaylen shrugs. “Sometimes I go by Zian. That’s what the authorities know me as. That’s about all they know about me.” He starts rifling through drawers, and Meke’s indulged him long enough.

“Okay, well, now you’re fixed you can leave.”

He pulls out a bandage from Meke’s first-aid drawer and applies it over his wound. “Not just yet.”

“Uh, yes, now.”

“If I leave now, they’ll find me. They’re probably waiting outside for me right now.”

Meke steps forward to lean over the counter, trying to make himself as threatening as possible. “I should just hand you over to them. I don’t know what you did to make them come after you, but it obviously can’t be good.”

Jaylen looks him in the eye, not cowed at all. It probably helps that they’re the same height, but realistically Meke isn’t threatening, not to a warlock. He could take Jaylen on in a fist fight, but he isn’t magic.

“If you were going to do that, you would have done it already.” Jaylen staggers back a few steps to collapse against the wall, and it triggers Meke’s sympathy. Even though he’s not a healer, it’s still his job to help people however he can, no matter who they are. “I can’t do any any more magic without them finding me. If I travel they’ll be able to trace me. I was lucky enough to be able to travel here on time without them catching me, but they won’t make that mistake again.” He closes his eyes, a hand on his chest, brows furrowed. Meke feels better knowing he can’t do any magic, but he is still trapped here with a potentially dangerous warlock. He’s injured, which could make him either less or more dangerous, depending on how he acts, but Meke isn’t about to push him any more than he already has. “So, you’re stuck with me, for the time being.”

Meke sighs again. He doesn’t feel good about leaving a warlock alone in his shop, but there’s not much he can do about that. “There’s a couch and some blankets in the back room. A tv, too, if you get bored. I’m about to close up now.”

Jaylen nods, his eyes still closed, looking like he’s about to pass out at any second.

“Are you alright? Should I get a healer?”

“Can’t risk it,” Jaylen says. “I’ll be healed in the morning.”

Meke still feels uneasy after he locks up, after Jaylen moves into the back room to lie down on the couch, and his uneasiness follows him up the stairs to his apartment above the shop. The kitchen, with its one bowl, one plate, one set of cutlery draining in the dishrack, and his bedroom, which is big enough for a double bed but not much else, both seem even less interesting after the events of the day.

Lost at sunset, found at dawn

Kat had a house, and it was a nice house, and she had a bird, and it was a nice bird, and she had a job, which was a nice job, and she was happy. She wasn’t happy. She was something resembling, but not quite, happy. She lived in her house. She fed her bird. She went to her job. She had a friend she called Myrtle who followed her wherever she went. Myrtle loved to lie in bed beside her. Myrtle loved to watch Kat feed her bird. Myrtle loved to wander behind Kat as she walked to the bus stop in the morning. But Myrtle was mean.

She would make Kat think of bad things. She would bring up the worst parts of Kat’s childhood and make her relive them, over and over. She would tell Kat things, such as she was a bad person for not stopping them, and that no one cared enough to help her when they were happening because she was worthless. That no one would love her once they knew who she really was. Myrtle would say so many bad things that she made thinking straight impossible for Kat.

Myrtle liked to follow Kat around the house while Kat was doing things. It was like having a pet that hated her and wouldn’t leave her alone. She figured that it was okay that her friend Myrtle hated her, because she hated Myrtle. But sometimes Myrtle was her only friend. The relationship was toxic, but Kat couldn’t abandon her. Myrtle was a comforting thought in the back of Kat’s mind and they had lived together for so long that it was impossible to think of her life without Myrtle throwing folded clothes onto the floor or breaking glasses that Kat would have to clean up.

On the walk to the bus stop, Myrtle would trip Kat over, and Kat would stumble into light posts and other people. When she got to work in the mornings, Tom would greet her, and the smell of Eileen’s morning premium roast would waft through the office. Kat would sit at the ergonomic chair at her desk and start up her computer and would set to work editing policy documents, and Myrtle would sit next to her the whole time. Sometimes Myrtle would shout mean things at her, or chatter away about things that were of no interest to Kat and distracted her from her work, sometimes gross things, sometimes awful things. It was easy to get caught up in the nonsense of what Myrtle was saying. Even after all these years of practice, Kat was still not very good at tuning her out.

When Nadira would come to Kat’s door and ask her if she wanted to grab lunch, Kat would look at Myrtle. Most of the time Myrtle clung onto Kat’s legs to stop her from going, making her legs feel so heavy she couldn’t move them, so Kat would decline. On the days Myrtle wasn’t there, which wasn’t often anymore, Kat would say yes, and she and Nadira would have lunch at Orlando’s Cafe on the corner. Kat treasured these times so much she would memorise the menu and take pictures of their food to post on Instagram so she could remember during the times Myrtle wouldn’t let her go how good it was being out.

Kat knew she needed Myrtle out of her life, but the problem was that Myrtle would never stay gone. Kat often thought about killing Myrtle, but then the sadness would be over. She often thought about what it would be like if Myrtle wasn’t in her life, but Myrtle was the most interesting thing about her. Their lives were so intertwined it was impossible for Kat to imagine one without her in it.

The days Myrtle wasn’t there when Kat woke up were always frightening at first, not knowing where Myrtle was, not hearing the awful things Myrtle would say to her first thing in the morning. She would get out of bed without Myrtle. She would eat breakfast without Myrtle. She would brush her teeth without Myrtle. She would feel exhilarated and scared and wonderful, as if Myrtle had never been in her life at all. But today, all day, she couldn’t shake the inevitability that Myrtle would come back.

At work, Nadira asked Kat if she wanted to go to lunch, and Kat jumped at the chance. There was nothing stopping her from going. She enjoyed the food that much more because Myrtle wasn’t there to make it taste bad, or unsettle her stomach, or tell her to say rude things to Nadira. Nadira took her hand and said, You seem so much happier today. What’s gotten into you? Nadira had the most beautiful brown eyes. Every day her hijab was made from cloth of a different colour and pattern. Kat admired that Nadira took so much pride in her appearance and knew how much of a struggle it could be to dress herself, which she managed to do, and put on makeup, which she managed to do, and wear a smile, which she managed to do most of the time. Maybe it wasn’t a struggle for Nadira. A lot of things Kat found hard to do didn’t seem to be a struggle for most people. Either they were better than her at hiding it or they didn’t have their own friend like Myrtle there to make it hard for them.

Nothing, Kat said, but her smile belied it.

Well, Nadira said, it looks good on you.

Nadira didn’t take her hand away for a few seconds and instead stroked the back of Kat’s hand reassuringly. Nadira was the kind of person that could make anyone feel better with just her presence. Her pleasant nature and witty comments made Kat feel safe when she was around her. Everyone in the office loved her, as did Kat, in a way she didn’t fully understand, a way that was halfway between love and obsession. At times Myrtle would talk to Kat about Nadira, endlessly and relentlessly, filling Kat’s head with only thoughts of Nadira. What Nadira was wearing. How beautiful Nadira was. What Nadira thought of Kat. If Nadira wanted to be Kat’s girlfriend. If she would ever love Kat like Kat wanted to be loved. Today, Myrtle wasn’t there to push these thoughts into Kat’s head, and Kat was able to enjoy Nadira’s company without obsessing over it.

Kat’s boss, Shoshannah, sent an email to say she would stop by Kat’s office later in the day. Usually Myrtle would tell Kat to worry, that she was going to lose her job, that Shoshannah would tell Kat she wasn’t working hard enough, dressed well enough, smiling enough. Today, though, Kat didn’t think these things. When Shoshannah, dressed as the epitome of spring time in a tailored pantsuit and a floral blouse, with a flower broach on her lapel and a flower barrette in her hair, came to Kat’s office, it was to tell her that she was doing a wonderful job, and that her work was appreciated. The day had started out rocky but turned into something she could enjoy.

But the day, as they always do, came to an end, and, when Kat came home, Myrtle was waiting for her. As soon as she walked in the living room to find her, Kat felt as though all the good things that had happened to her that day amounted to nothing. She dropped her backpack by the front door and went to bed where Myrtle crawled in beside her. She thought about all the worst things that had happened to her in her life. Her mother died when she was a teenager, and it had happened so suddenly no one had been able to say goodbye, and Kat had lost the chance to tell her mother how much she meant to her. When she was five, Kat’s brother had tried to kill her by pushing her into traffic. Her last boyfriend had manipulated her into joining their bank accounts, and then gambled her savings away. When he started hitting her, at first none of her friends believed her, and, when they did, they told her that she must have done something to deserve it. He was a good guy. It was probably her fault.

As she lay in bed, Myrtle told her these things, over and over, forcing her to relive the worst moments of her life. Kat couldn’t do anything but lie there, staring over Myrtle’s shoulder at the wall, unable to move, unable to think past the hurt of her life.

Sometimes Myrtle turned into Kat’s worst fears. Myrtle’s face would grow monstrous, spikes erupting from it, turning a sewage green colour, her voice deep and scary. She would crowd Kat into a corner, hissing and spitting, as if Kat had done something to hurt her, as if she was the one hurt. Sometimes Myrtle would hide where Kat couldn’t see her and whisper, her voice low, sinister, telling Kat that she had to kill herself or Myrtle would do it for her.

After that, it seemed to her that life was just dragging on and on and on with no payoff coming, no sunshine after a rainy morning, no ten dollars found in your purse on grocery day. She wanted to die. A lifetime of living with Myrtle was enough. The medication didn’t guarantee that Myrtle would go away, but it was supposed to lessen Myrtle’s influence over her. It didn’t. She still seemed a slave to Myrtle’s whims, her taunts, her needling.

Kat was in pain when Myrtle was around. Her soul hurt in ways she couldn’t describe with words. She knew she needed help, but it seemed beyond her when all she could think about was getting through the next hour, the next minute. She was crying at her desk when Nadira found her, and she was muttering to Myrtle, and she was afraid. The days had started to blur into a grey mass of home and bird and work and home and bird and work and home and bird and work. Nadira’s hijab was the only spot of colour she could see in the world, a beautiful mesh of purple and silver cloth that made Kat feel as though there was something worth loving, and it was the colour purple. It was the gap in Nadira’s front teeth when she smiled for only a split second as she knocked on the open door before she saw Kat crying and her face fell. It was the knock, and the hand, and the expression. It was Nadira coming over to her and putting that hand on her shoulder while taking one of Kat’s in the other, that simple act of intimacy that women share, a comfort or a secret or spilled tea.

If this is what it’s come to, Kat thought, almost shrinking away from Nadira’s touch, then I’m not getting any better.

Nadira whispered that it was okay, that everybody needed help sometimes. This feeling won’t last forever, but it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling now. You’re not crazy. You’re not weak. I’m here for you. And all through it Kat sobbed, and as Nadira was talking, the sound of Myrtle’s voice grew softer until it faded into the background with the noise of the birds outside and Kat could think.

I don’t know why I’m like this, Kat said, and Nadira nodded.

It will make sense when you get better, Nadira said, and Kat nodded.

Nadira handed her the box of tissues on her desk to wipe up the tears and snot from her face instead of using the backs of her hands. Contrary to what Myrtle had told her, Nadira didn’t recoil from her. She didn’t back away once she’d seen what Kat was like underneath the plastered-on, enamel spray smile that would wane as the day drew on; she held Kat’s hand.

Kat didn’t know what to say to that, or how to repay Nadira’s kindness in words, but she wanted to. The only thought in her mind was showing Nadira how much that action meant to her, of being someone who could show kindness, too. She wanted to be worth that.

So, the next day, she found out how use the coffee machine and made Eileen a coffee the way she liked, and came in early to greet her with a cup. The following Tuesday, she set aside some time to talk to Tom, listening to stories about his children’s swim class and how much he loved to ride his bike to work in the morning. The day after that, Kat asked Nadira out to lunch before Nadira could ask her.

When Kat came home she sat down in front of the pile of unanswered letters on the coffee table with the sole purpose of answering them. Later that day, she went to the grocery store and bought thirty dollars’ worth of fresh fruit and vegetables, only feeling overwhelmed once over the choice between Granny Smith and Red Delicious. She cleaned out her bird’s cage. She washed her sheets. She did the dishes. She called her father. She bit into the peach-softness of life with relish, the way a shovel bites dirt. Myrtle was with her through all of it, but, for once, it didn’t matter. For once, Kat felt like she was doing more than just surviving. She felt like she was starting to live.

Exorcist

There wasn’t much a person could do the first time they watched a seventh-circle demon being exorcised out of the body of fourteen year old who had previously been shattering windows with his mind, except steer clear of the six-foot-four, shotgun-wielding warrior who was currently exorcising it.

Her name was Jie, and, until ten minutes ago, before she’d busted down the door to this abandoned Caltex with her gun in hand and her hair flying around her as the storm raged on, before she’d pinned the fourteen year old down with her bare hands and a flask full of holy water, that’s all I knew about her for sure. The whispers were abundant, but that’s all they were: her name, and a following silence that caused a shudder down my spine every time I’d heard it.

The demon had been following me for months like a sinister echo, turning up in random places just to taunt me with childish glee. He—it, not the fourteen year old with the crooked smile it wore—turned my co-workers against me through either its presence or its words, drove me out of my own house and suburb, and tracked me halfway across the state to Charleville where I got hooked on Winnie Blues and Warrego water. I was running, with no clear plan in mind, only a name, and maybe a direction—the last place Jie had been seen, a place called Stonehenge that didn’t even show up on my phone’s map app. But I couldn’t have known, as the demon did, that she was following me, too.

I had just shoved the Winnie Blues in my top pocket when the sky outside the Caltex turned ash-grey and a fierce wind blew the floor-to-ceiling glass windows inwards, showering me, the cashier, and the only other person I’d seen for kilometres—a trucker named Gary who’d offered to let me use the restroom before him due to the fuck-up his intestines had become since he started snorting meth to keep himself awake at night. His record was two and a half weeks without taking a dump, a tidbit that haunted my daymares just as much as the demon did. Gary was a sweetheart, that much was for sure. When lightning hit the building, he pulled me back just as the ceiling collapsed in front of us, and saved my life—although I’m sure the demon wouldn’t have let me go that easy, not after my rapid decline into madness spurred on by sleepless nights and the certainty that I was going to die, sooner or later, once the demon stopped toying with me. No, it would savour the moment my life was extinguished, just as it savoured chomping at my heels for the last 1600 kilometres.

Gary shouted at me to get back but I couldn’t move. I could only watch as the demon advanced through the rubble and the shower of sparks from the busted ceiling lights and exposed wiring. Its eyes weren’t wild, like a feral animal; they were calm, and calculating, and decisive. Seeing that look from the face of a fourteen year old was harrowing, maybe more so than the hellish magic it used. It wanted me, and it wanted me to suffer.

It crushed glass and drywall under its Flight Shoes as stepped closer, and I was frozen in fear. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t.

“Get out of here, son,” Gary said, shouting over the sound of water running from busted pipes somewhere. Maybe it was the meth, the shock, or both, but he didn’t seem to realise that this was the demon’s doing—that the kid walking towards us was there to kill me. “The building’s gunna collapse, call the ambos.”

The demon glanced at him, and then back to me with a look that said, can you believe this guy? I almost wanted to explain that Gary wasn’t in his right mind, but I knew it would be futile. Instead I hissed at Gary to shut up, but he kept going, still misreading the situation entirely.

“Did you hear me? You gotta git!”

When I glanced back at Gary I saw that his leg was trapped under a large piece of ceiling, and my throat grew tight. It didn’t seem likely that Gary was going to survive much longer. Neither of us would be able to protect ourselves against a demon who could bring on storms and crumble buildings with its mind.

The demon rolled its eyes. “I’m not here to help, and I’m not going anywhere.” It stepped up to me, chewing on its lip and looking like a psychopathic teen killer, bored and interested at the same time. If I could have spared any sympathy for anyone but myself, I’d have felt sorry for the kid it was dragging around--the blood that was on its clothes looked more like splashback than its own.

I’d pushed myself as far away as I could while the demon advanced, until I’d backed myself into a corner. My heart beat so loud and hard in my chest I felt as though it was going to burst out of my ribcage and save the demon the trouble of disembowelling me, and my panic only rose the closer the demon leaned into me.


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