Avery was out of the car, limping towards the front door, the shotgun cradled across his chest before Madeline could undo her seatbelt. She tried to call him but it was futile. From inside the house, came the sound of an animal struggling, barking and yelping in discomfort.
When the boom came, Madeline ducked and put her hands over her ears as her heart thumped in her ears. Whatever Avery had come across, had necessitated a violence of action that she had no frame of reference for. A small voice inside her head warned her that there was nothing good to come of going into the house, but Avery was there, and she gathered by his haste, Harlan.
‘Fuck my life.’ she said.
She walked to the porch, heard the sound of another shotgun blast and cried out in shock. She peered around the door frame and saw Avery stood at the foot of the stairs, thumbing another pair of shells, ready to fire.
He put his hand up to acknowledge her. He reached into the waistband and pulled out a small nickel plated revolver, and held it out behind him. With a hand damp and shaking with adrenaline, she took it. The weight was discomforting and she turned it over in her hand.
‘Take this. Anyone who isn’t me or my brother, you empty it into them. Aim for the pelvis. Cock the hammer, squeeze the trigger, don’t stop until it’s empty.’
His voice had the rasp of thunder and gun smoke. He started to walk up the stairs, brought the butt of the gun to his shoulder.
‘Don’t move. I’ll come to you.’
Madeline knew that she wasn’t the focus here, but she wanted to help. She had gotten Avery back on his foot and had driven him here without asking. That did not arrest the cruel jolts of fear that came with every breath she took. The house was encrusted in layers of filth, yellowing grease in patinas like geological layers. Whatever lived here, did so without regard for themselves beyond the heated dissonances of unspeakable insanity. She watched a cockroach crawl sluggishly across a plate so crusted with food that she could not tell what colour it might have been. A plastic glass with the rim chewed into twisted patterns sat there with an inch of congealed dairy, separated into a clear liquid and gobbets of something off white floated within it. She swallowed and held the gun up in both her hands. The uneasy creak of Avery’s feet on the stairs made her breath come short in her lungs.
She had the gun, but she wasn’t sure that it would be enough for whatever might live in a house like this. A home, after all, was a place to leave your mark.
Sometimes that meant a scar.
Avery’s voice came down the stairs.
‘I’ve got you. Just breathe.’
Madeline went through to the foot of the stairs. Avery had slung the shotgun over his shoulder and had a grey wolf in his arms, stroking him and shushing him in a voice that nearly broke beneath the weight of the emotions. The wolf’s spine rose, twisting and buckling as the fur began to retreat, the untwisting of an anatomy that she had partially witnessed with Avery.
‘Harlan, what was it?’
Harlan gasped and clutched at his brother, tears streaming down his face.
‘I don’t know. It burst out of the lady, and I tried.’
He collapsed into sobs again and Avery looked past him, down the hall.
‘Can you change back?’
Harlan grimaced and looked downstairs.
‘Unless you brought me another pair of pants, then I think I’m better off if I do.’
Madeline looked away, embarrassed by the fraternal intimacy more than Harlan’s nudity.
Harlan looked into his brother’s eyes, and gave a sardonic, if pained smile. He started to speak but then he gestured towards his throat and began to make wet, slick choking noises. Avery forced his jaw open and with a face devoid of anything, reached his fingers in and began to tuck at the obstruction. Madeline came up the stairs but Avery shook his head.
A tongue extended, and Madeline made the sickening association that it looked like red gummy candy, as it wrapped around Avery’s thick wrist with a nightmarish elasticity. Avery grimaced and tugged, standing up and resting his free hand on the banister. Madeline caught the smell of burning flesh, mixed with a thin, vaguely chemical smell like a backed up portable chemical toilet. Avery and his stoicism broke at the same time, his face elongating into a muzzle with a snapping, dry sound that smoothed out into a wet lurch as he kept drawing it out. He drew it up and bit into it, eyes bulging in their sockets as Harlan pulled backwards, choking and gasping as he too, began to change.Avery’s prosthetic clattered away behind him as he let go of the need for it.
Madeline had the image carved into her forebrain, a scene from the worst fever dreams of Bosch or Dali, the two brothers, shedding skin for fur with a ropey, seething worm carved from muscle tissue, nerves and pockets of adipose fat that throbbed and bubbled to it’s own internal rhythms. They were clawing and snapping at it as the tail that slipped from Harlan’s mouth. dripped with chyme.
Harlan staggered backwards, clutching at his throat as his face elongated into a muzzle whilst Avery ripped into the thing with his claws.
What Madeline could not know was that the thing was speaking to them.
I have lived centuries, I am a cancer of the bowels of the universe and I find hallowed ground in the hearts of all men.
Its statement was broken by a cry of agony, an awful surprise for something that fed on, but seldom experienced pain of any kind. Avery’s claws made their own compelling rhetoric.
I offer such power, immortality if you would let me taste of your shift-selves just once. I will forgive your insults if you would –
Harlan leapt forwards, biting but not tasting into the ridges of muscle and scar tissue that constituted a spine. Between the two of them, it was made light work of, until nothing remained but shreds and splatters.
It was not silent, instead it screamed and it maddened the brothers even more, until they were padding around the sodden floorboards, looking for any trace of it.
The silence, which was the first time that the Culpepper House had been silent for decades, made Madeline call out Avery’s name. The brothers loped down the stairs and went outside, their fur matted with blood and ichor. Madeline shivered with intense and expansive emotions at the sight of them.
They stood by the car, and waited for Madeline.
They were quiet in the car ride home, the questions would come, and along with them, the answers. Harlan stared out of the window and realised that whatever else, there was a hell of a book that could come out of this.
He would dedicate it to Eddie. He closed his eyes against the sting of tears, welcomed his brother reaching back and patting him on the knee. It was as demonstrative as he ever got, but that touch spoke volumes to the depth of feeling he held for him.
Avery looked at Madeline, sought to read her feelings and intentions by her expressions and body language. There would need to be a conversation about what had happened, who he was and now who his brother was. Secrets that he accepted alone, now had others invested and affected by them.
Madeline drove, her mind going a mile a minute. She figured that something would come to her before they reached Avery’s place. The dogs were okay with him, so she figured that if a dog liked someone, then they were a safe bet.
A mile, a minute at a time was a good way to live your life.
Moment by moment.
For them, for now, it was over.
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