A momentary silence coursed through my body as my lips touched those of a man who was in the habit of stopping hearts rather than quickening them. Mine was not precisely a romantic attraction, but a primal reaction to his purity, his singular manifestation of the monster that lived in all men. He was Wicked—no other man I’d ever encountered so completely summoned the beast, in all its intellectual and physical fury.
The killer’s eyes went into mine, searching like a ravening wolf—for weakness, a tender place to rest its teeth. I offered nothing but a greater hunger. This was not a kiss. This was a reckoning of station.
He was mine.
His eyes left my own, sinking down beside me, understanding. Accepting. I could also feel Her, whispering through me, becoming me. There was an ever-lessening distinction between Her and I, a subtle blending that lived only a breath away from completion.
Wicked shivered at the renewed sight of me. I peered through the shadows moving between us. Her red smile blazed from my lips, burning his wild grin into submission.
His hand went to the neglected wound in my shoulder. “Here’s a trick. You bleed, but you are no mere woman. Not anymore.”
I rose to my feet. The moment had died between us, but its implications lived on.
“We need to find this guy and get the fuck out of here,” I declared.
Wicked smiled, looking past me into the night, searching the streets with eyes that shrugged off darkness. “There are plenty of functional cars out there. You’ve only to pick a color, my dear.”
The two of us climbed into an old red Cadillac and off we went. I knew, in that mysterious way of his, Baron would meet us at our destination. Rover too would be there when needed, or when I called upon him.
The haunted glow of the dashboard played havoc with reality, creating ghosts out of seatbelt shadows and specters from sun visors. Every now and then, the tumbling blackness of a monster dog kept pace with six cylinders.
The fog took its time with us, patiently coiling around the streets like an ephemeral python, slowly squeezing off visibility with the painful sloth of dying. Soon the going was all but impossible, or at least it should have been but for Wicked’s preternatural eyes and Rover’s occasional assistance removing large obstacles from our path.
I could feel our collective rope tightening with each city block we were allowed passage. The spirits of New Victoria were watching us, calculating us, waiting for the right time to strike—when they could best exceed our worst expectations and fears.
It didn’t help my nerves that the city had no capacity for idleness. Towers, steeples, the entire skyline milled around the black sky, carrying moonlight upon its back and reflecting it through thousands of glaring windows.
The Victorian skin of the place was peeling off in places, revealing the alien presence of a walk of nightmare born from the Devil’s dreams. It was as though the insane things squatting and tittering beneath neon signs and crooked lampposts had contaminated the urban spaces of the city with their black sleep, repairing cracked walkways and broken windows with the textures of countless bad dreams. At one point the street clogged with crucified bodies, humanoid figurines kneeling at their feet, looking sightlessly on. I would have plowed right through the disturbing Mass, but Wicked was a lover of the weird and so gave the congregation a wide berth.
Wicked saw it before I did, naturally. The next hundred yards or so would be the most dangerous yet, this side of sleep anyway. Here was where they’d come for us, where our fear could climb no higher—a suspension bridge. The ground dropped off into blackness where it began, and dim city light peeked through the fog from the far side. Wicked’s grin was in rare form.
“Well,” I said, “do we stop and figure out our approach, or just charge right— “
The engine roared beneath Wicked’s boot, his laughter rising like a storm. Despite myself, I smiled—red and wild and alive. I didn’t need Her to smile for me anymore. I could do it all on my own now. I realized moments like these were the only tastes of life Wicked had ever known, moments wherein he no longer had to wonder whether he truly existed. It was one of those rare instances that defied reality, proving life the obstacle to living.
As we raced forward I could hear the gigantic notes of a monstrously saccharine tune unwinding from somewhere beneath the bridge, deep under the water. The notes sounded off quickly and gradually slowed, the silence between sounds becoming pregnant with monsters. It dawned on me what I was hearing—the music of a gargantuan jack-in-the-box.
Without warning, the weasel went “Pop!”
The last note sounded and the earth reverberated like a cosmic bell. At the same instant something exploded out of the water, an atom bomb that set the world atilt. The suspension cables screeched as they tried to wrench free of their moorings. The entire road began to sway side to side like a gigantic swing of steel and stone. The fog that surrounded us suddenly swept upward, caught in the draft of something titanic rising into the air. Torrents of water, spasming fish and seaweed all began falling from the fog-shrouded sky as the city light across the bridge winked out. Whatever horrible thing that sprang up from the water beneath was now looming over us. The windows fogged as the hot breath of the behemoth fell across the car like a summer wind. It stank of decay and sweets, like a mountain of candied fish melting in the sun. In the moment between the fog parting and the breath of the beast blasting the windows, I saw it.
Broken yellow teeth surrounding a candy-striped smile blotted out the sky. Eyes like sickly twin moons painted the world in a dull yellow-green light. A blue and orange polka-dotted top hat rose to the belly of the sky, looking like a flat-topped mountain perched sideways on the titan’s head. When it laughed it felt like the world itself was shaking apart.
I’d never seen Wicked laugh so hard, so completely, his eyes alight with mad wonder and genuine joy.
I realized I was laughing too, and together our laughter didn’t drown out the chaos—it embraced it. We were two children peeking through a tear in the big top, stealing a glimpse at the madness hidden from the waking world.
Step right up folks, the show is about to begin.
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