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Over the course of a single summer Egan Kulwicki turned fifteen, fell in love, and got his ass kicked, roughly in that order.
Falling in love came suddenly, when the Patels’ daughter came home from college. Egan saw her when he came home from the games store. He brought his bike to a screeching stop and stared at the Patels’ driveway, where Cynthia was unpacking her beaten-up Toyota. She waved and he stood slack-jawed by his bike before fleeing inside to peek back through the window. At least twenty, she was an older woman, worldly and intimidating. Even from behind the curtain, Egan couldn’t look at her directly for fear that she might look back. And then what would he do? At some point Cynthia had transformed from his neighbor, a slightly older kid who was nice to him, who’d let him play her video games and told him about new bands, into someone unapproachable.
So he didn't approach her.
But she danced through his thoughts that summer, while he hung out with his friends, while he collected and painted miniature armies in his bedroom, and especially as he did the yard chores.
Cynthia was often outside, reading a book or tending to an herb garden, and Egan caught glimpses of her as she walked along the fence separating their yards. She only appeared in the cracks between slats, a teasing vision more absent than not. It was exactly the kind of relationship he could handle.
He was trimming the grass along the fence and running through hypothetical conversations with Cynthia when he realized someone was talking to him.
Turning off the string trimmer, he looked up and froze. Cynthia’s head was above the fence, framed by her hands. A tiny metal stud in her nose twinkled in the sunlight, as Egan got his first good look at her since her return.
Her gray eyes had brown flecks which made them look like polished rocks, their size reduced just slightly by the lenses of her glasses. The eyeglass frames were tortoise shell, complimenting both the brown flecks of her eyes and the black sheen of her hair, which was meticulously tussled. Like all of her, the hair was slovenly perfection.
She wore a half smile that brought out a dimple as she asked, “Do you have any batteries?”
“Batteries?” He’d never prepared himself for a battery conversation.
“Yeah, AA if you got any.” There was a pause and her smile faltered. “Do you?”
“Do I?” Egan knew he was being asked to do something, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
She asked again, this time in slow, clearly enunciated syllables. “Do you got any bat-ter-ies?”
“I... think we have some in the garage.”
“Cool. I’ll come around.”
Egan swallowed. Cynthia Patel was coming around the fence. To his house. While his parents were gone.
He frantically swatted grass clippings from his shorts and t-shirt and tried to stand up taller. He walked to the gate, and opened it to find Cynthia striding towards him. She wore a yellow spaghetti-strap tank top, khaki shorts, and flip-flop sandals. She held a flashlight, and a carved box nestled under one arm.
She gave him an easy smile.
“You said in the garage?”
Eagan nodded wordlessly.
The garage was attached to the house, but he’d left the overhead door open while doing the yard work. They walked inside, and Egan rooted around in the plastic bins which lined the garage shelves until he found a packet of batteries. He hoisted them up like a trophy.
“Double-A!” he said.
Cynthia set the box on his Dad’s workbench. About the size of a loaf of bread, the box was made of some weird material, like ivory or old bone. With discolored hinges and ornate writing covering its top and sides, it looked like something his parents would bring home from an antique store and then forbid him to touch.
Cynthia took the batteries and slid them into the back of the flashlight. Her top revealed her upper back, and spanning the distance from one shoulder to the other was a tattoo. It was a scrawled, uneven script that looked like it had been written with a stick found in someone's backyard. The tattoo read: Sin Titulo.
“Cool ink.” Egan had heard people say that before, and it seemed appropriate here.
“Thanks,” she said, though so reflexively that it seemed like she may not have even heard him. “Now let’s see if we can open this up.”
She hunched over the table and Egan peered over her shoulder. He didn’t see any latch or handles anyway on the surface.
“Is it a puzzle box?” he asked. “I saw one like that at the mall one time.”
“Not like this,” she said. “And it’s a test, not a puzzle. Although....”
She ran her hands across the surface of the box, tracing the intricate triangular patterns etched in the off-white surface.
Egan blinked. From a distance that pattern had looked just like handwriting. How could he have confused the two?
“The thing about puzzles,” said Cynthia, “is that the people who make them tend to forget all about the direct route.” Smiling, she adjusted her glasses. “Is there a crowbar in here?”
“Um...” Egan scanned the shelves again, not wanting to disappoint his unexpected visitor. “Yeah! Here you go.” He handed the prybar to Cynthia, who wedged its chisel edge into the lid of the box. Egan craned his neck for a better view.
“Is it stuck?”
“Hold the flashlight so I can see.”
Egan did, and after a minute or so of coaxing there was a satisfying ‘click’ and the box's lid popped open. As it swung up, Egan thought he could feel a rumble somewhere deep beneath the concrete slab of the garage.
Cynthia peered inside, and Egan adjusted the light. She was slightly taller than him (“just a smidge” his mom would have said) and his chin was level with her exposed shoulder as he stood by her side. He tried to focus on the possible treasure they had just uncovered. But instead the box was...
“Empty.” Egan's voice dripped with disappointment.
Cynthia bit her lip. “Yep,” she said, and seemed to consider this development before turning to him.
“So,” she said. “You got any knives?”
Egan was faster on the uptake than he had been about the batteries. “Yeah! I got lots in the kitchen.”
“Great. Go get them.”
Cynthia’s eyes danced.
“All of them.”
Egan was back within minutes, and already Cynthia had cleared off the work table and the area around it. She’d closed the overhead door, and pulled a length of chain from one of the many mysterious bins Egan's dad kept under the workbench. Cut to length with a pair of his dad’s bolt cutters now casually thrown to the side, the chain made a loose circle around the box. Its lid still stood open, its emptiness on display.
Egan laid out the knives, and risked a glance at Cynthia. “Don't you have knives in your house?”
She ignored him and grabbed the knives, jamming them blade-first into the table. Side by side, they formed a steel fence in the shape of a rough pentagram around the chest. The table had a work light clamped to its edge, and she bent the its arm slightly, shining the bulb down onto the top of the chest.
“Okay,” she said, “It’s stabilized. Let's go at this thing.”
A grinding metal sound came from overhead, and Egan jumped.
Oh, crap, he thought. They're home early. But it wasn't his parents’ familiar Subaru in the driveway. Instead the overhead door rose to reveal a man's boots, then tightly cut jeans, then heavy winter coat, and finally a wild-haired, pale face. The exterior entry code box hung from the garage doorframe, left to dangle after the man had apparently...
“Did that guy just hack my garage?”
Cynthia muttered a quick “Get inside,” to Egan before stepping in between the box and the man.
Looking at the man, she spoke in a louder, commanding voice.
“Go. Leave this place. You are not wanted here, and have not been invited.”
The man ignored her, striding into the garage, boots striking the floor with thuds accented by the jangle of unclasped buckles. Flesh as pallid as a fish’s belly, the man had big hands, cracked and callused, that flexed open and closed while he walked. His head carried at an odd angle, tilted back so that he was always looking down his nose at them as he advanced.
Ugh-- skinny jeans, Eagan thought, irritated with himself for even noticing.
From underneath the thick thermal layers of his coat the man drew a two-handled blade, dull and plain. The simple curve of gardeners' shears.
The shears snicked through the air, a soft sound that underlined the man's rapid breath. Long arms danced across each other and he moved around Cynthia, trying to force her back, angling towards the box in its protective pentagram of knives.
Cynthia reached into the pocket of her shorts and pulled out a bright red cylinder. With a flick of her thumb she opened the top and unleashed a stream of red liquid into the man's face.
The man’s high-pitched warble of agony pierced the air, and Egan gagged on the biting pepper smell that filled the garage. The stranger slashed out again with the blade, now in blind fury instead of a delicate dance. The man dove forward. Cynthia grabbed for the box but couldn’t reach it or any of the knives before the man was on her. Cynthia jumped back, colliding with Egan and sending him into the open-framed 2x4s of the garage wall. His head collided with the mounted door remote. The overhead door began its grinding, slow descent, bright summer sun giving way to darkness and the desk lamp spotlight that shone on the box and its protective pentagram.
Squinting through one eye, the man slashed the air wildly and stumbled towards the box which Egan’s neighbor seemed so determined to protect. He was only a long stride away when he stopped, unwilling or unable to cross the fence of blades. Cynthia grabbed the nearest thing at hand: a wooden-armed hoe and swung it at the stranger, pushing him back.
As the man retreated, Egan dove forward, trying to tackle him. Even half blind, the pallid man saw it coming and slashed out with the shears.
The blade hit Egan in the chest, biting in at the sternum, a burning line of red opening up from there to his shoulder. The cutting edge was dull enough that it didn't open his shirt, just burrowed through and pushed the material over to one side, forcing sweaty cotton into and across the open wound.
Egan screamed and flopped back, flailing with both hands and hitting the garage door button again. It screeched to life, revealing the garage to the world once again.
Cynthia swung the hoe low, sparks jumping as steel scraped concrete. The man jumped back, fighting to keep his balance. Her next swing was high-- too high, and the man didn't even have to duck. The hoe struck one of supports that held the garage opener tension springs in place. It shimmied back and forth, and Cynthia's next swing was a direct jab at the man's head. He bobbed to the side and tried to circle around her. Egan kicked a paint can in his path and the man hesitated just long enough for Cynthia to press him back into his corner. She swung again, and again was high.
But this time, when she hit the tension support there was a sharp 'crack'. The cable sprang back, whipsawing the fist-sized metal pulley at its end, striking the man in the temple and finding several inches of purchase. His head snapped to the side and he fell hard, though to Egan, whose ears were still ringing from the explosive snap of the spring breaking loose, it seemed like the pale assailant fell silently, landing stretched out on the floor, legs twitching. Cynthia stared at the prone figure for a two-count, then the hoe clattered to the floor as she ran to the workbench. Scooping up the box, she turned to Egan who sat shaking in the corner, arms clasped across his chest.
“You okay?” she said.
“He tried to kill us.” Egan stared at the limp form on the garage floor.
Cynthia gently pulled on one of Egan’s arms. It came away from his chest slick with blood.
Egan looked down, up, anywhere but at the wound.
“Why did someone just try to kill me with garden shears?”
“Because when you look as messed up as that freak, you’re bound to get stopped by the cops. No one gets arrested for carrying garden tools. They run around with crap like that all the time.”
Egan stared at her, aware that she hadn't answered his question, but not quite sure how to call her out on it. “But, why—”
He broke off when she tugged up his shirt. His heart beating double-time, Egan stared at Cynthia, noticing how her brows knitted together as she looked at the wound on his chest.
“Come on,” she said, helping him up. “You got a first aid kit or something?”
Egan nodded. “Upstairs bathroom.”
She helped him up, keeping the mysterious box nestled in the crook of one arm.
“Okay. We should have time to take a look at you. Guide the way.”
He led her inside the house and up the stairs, vaguely wondering if he needed to worry about getting blood on the carpet, and in general glad that his parents weren't home.
“First aid kit's in there.” He nodded towards the hall bathroom. “Under the sink.”
“We need to lay you down someplace. Where's your room?”
He pointed in T-Rex fashion, keeping his forearms tight to his wound. They were halfway down the hall when Egan realized that Cynthia Patel was about to go into his bedroom. This blissful fact was severely mitigated by the knowledge of what took up most of his room: two card tables of miniature soldiers in various stages of being painted in the colors of the 11th Imperial Infantry, the banner he fought under at local gaming stores.
“We... may have more space somewhere else,” he said.
“No. It's close and it will work.”
“We need to call the cops. We can't leave that psycho down there.”
“After we get you buttoned up.” She guided him with a firm hand into his room, and put him on his bed. “Take your shirt off and I'll get the first aid kit.”
He was helpless.
When she returned, Cynthia set the strange box on his lap and bandaged the wound briskly and professionally. Only once did she bump him, causing the corner of the box to press into his chest. Fresh blood dripped on and into it, but she didn't seem to care, just pushed him back and kept working on the wound.
“Seriously, the cops--”
“We're fine. Creeps like that guy are loners. He's got buddies, sure--”
“--but they won't be hanging around.” She tucked in the last of the gauze and stepped back to admire her handiwork. She clipped one of his painting tables with her hip, apparently noticing it for the first time.
“Woah.” She stooped to look at the figures, no more than a few inches tall. “What're these?” Cynthia turned to look at Egan, flashing bright teeth in a crooked smile. “Did you do these?”
“They're not a big deal...”
“Are you kidding? These are wicked!” She tapped a single warrior with a finger. “You got some talent.”
Egan beamed. “Um, some of them are real old. From the 80s. They're actual lead, so hard to find. I get them off eBay and... you know, paint them.” He trailed off uncomfortably.
“Well they're cool, whatever they are.” She smiled at him again, and then turned her attention to the box.
Egan couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound awkward. So he settled for awkward silence.
Cynthia finally spoke. “I'd like to try a couple of things with this box. Any chance you got matches?”
Egan cocked his head, surprised. “You don't have a lighter?”
Cynthia shook her head, fingers still tracing the inlaid runes that covered the box.
He couldn't fathom her without the cool Zippo he'd just assumed she would carry. “Don't you smoke?”
She looked up from the symbols. “What? God, no. Smoking's gross.”
“Yeah, I know. I just, just thought that maybe you--”
“Were also gross?”
She gave him a look he normally got from teachers and guidance counselors.
“Smoking makes your teeth fall out and your breath stink. Don't smoke, kid.” She returned her attention to the box.
At the word “kid” Egan's heart felt like it curled up into a defensive posture, a frightened armadillo of the soul. He drooped his head, and stared at his blood-soaked shirt in the middle of the floor. He tried to think of what to say to this strange and beautiful girl.
When he looked up her back was to him. Ignoring the painful burn in his cheeks, he strengthened his voice long enough to ask, “What does your tattoo mean?”
“It's Spanish. It means “Untitled”.”
“I know what it says.” Egan had taken Spanish class since 6th grade. “But what does it mean? Why did you have it done?”
She turned around to face him, this time looking less like a disapproving adult. “It means what it says. You know artists name their paintings?”
“So when they have one they can't describe in words, or something that isn't formed yet, they call it, 'Untitled.'“
“Which one are you?”
She frowned. “What?”
“Impossible to describe, or unformed? Which one are you?”
She broke into a smile that restored the dimples to her cheeks and lit up her eyes.
“A little bit of both, I like to think.”
Her smile erased all of Egan's depression and anxiety. He didn't know it yet, but for the rest of his life, he would associate relief with the flush of love.
Cynthia’s attention drifted to the box once again, staring at it as she opened and closed the lid.
Egan pushed himself into a more comfortable position with his good arm. “What’s the deal with that thing?”
She hesitated, and he pressed on. “You can’t stop messing with it. The garage guy wanted to get to it. Is it,” his voiced lowered, “stolen?”
Cynthia’s jaw dropped. “What? No! It’s a test,” she waved the box in the air, as if being casual with it proved it was hers. “A final exam. Open the box, see what’s inside, deal with it.”
Egan looked at her very calmly. “Where exactly do you go to school?”
Cynthia snorted, expressing disdain without answering the question. They sat in brief silence before Egan tried again.
“What happens if you don’t pass?”
She cleared her throat and tucked a loose strand of dark hair behind her glasses.
“It’s kind of a weed-out class,” she said, lips twitching.
Egan didn’t like the sound of that. “How can I help?”
Cynthia shook her head and opened her mouth, but Egan didn’t give her a chance to speak.
“I just got stabbed,” he said. “With garden shears. If that doesn’t earn me—”
“Fine!” she said. “Look at this and tell me what you see.”
She moved aside to give Egan a view from his reclined position. The box may have been empty, but the container itself was an ornately covered piece of artwork.
The calligraphy along the outside was… Wait. Egan pulled back.
“I thought there was handwriting on it before, but now it’s—”
“Runes,” she said.
“You know what runes are?”
“Um, yeah.” She sounded a little offended at being asked. “Do you?”
“Those symbols the Vikings used, all axe handles and crossed swords.” He didn't say that he knew this because he had painted them onto miniature tanks and battle buggies. Intricately lettered slogans about fire and the blood of innocents didn't feel like the right topic of conversation at the moment.
She seemed to accept his answer. “Okay. Look again. What does it look like now?”
Egan started forward, but eased back at the stab of pain from his chest. “Fancy handwriting again.” He squinted. “But it’s not English.”
“Latin,” she said. “Now look away.”
He had just averted his eyes before she said, “Look back.”
He did, and leaned in again, this time ignoring the pain. The surface of the box was covered in triangles with curved backs, accented across their sides by small dots, singly or in clusters.
“Cuneiform,” she said. “Cool, huh?”
Egan studied the surface for signs of how the trick worked.
“Observer Script,” said Cynthia. “The words exist in three languages at once. When directly observed they collapse into one language or another. Look away, look back—it’ll cycle through all three.”
Egan sat back with a frown. Cynthia shrugged.
“You wanted me to tell you,” she said. “I told you. Not my job to make you believe.” she spun the box over, displaying all of its sides lined with the triangular marks. “Anyway, I think there’s directions on here, but languages aren’t my strong suit. So I’m going to have to improvise.”
Egan cleared his throat. The intricately painted runic banners of the 11th Imperial Infantry stood proud on the card table behind her.
“Well,” he said. “The runes look Anglo-Saxon. I can--” He was cut off by a crash from the first floor. It was followed by a high pitched, faltering giggle.
Cynthia cursed. “Where did you say your phone was?”
Egan stared at her, wide-eyed. “You said there wouldn’t be any more of them.”
“The phone, Egan. Where’s the phone?”
“It’s charging in the kitchen.”
They were interrupted by a new voice.
“Hey, inside the house!”
They looked out the window. In the driveway, waving up at them, was a man in a brown three-piece suit accented with flashing cufflinks, a bolo tie, and a 10-gallon hat squeezed down onto thickly greased, slicked back hair. He held a smoldering cigar butt pinched between two fingers, flakes of ash drifting down, landing on snakeskin boots with decorative silver buckles. Despite the outfit, it was obvious that the man in the driveway was no more a cowboy that Egan’s accountant father was a steel worker.
The brown-suited man smiled. He had movie star white teeth, like Egan's friend Kelly, whose dad was a dentist. But this man's mouth stretched and stretched, and there seemed no end to his perfectly formed, gleaming white chompers.
“Well howdy, you two!” Even the man’s accent was phony, like he’d learned to talk by watching bad cowboy movies.
Egan turned to Cynthia. “Who is that?”
Her voice managed to sound interested and resigned at the same time. “He's a devil.”
Egan looked back out the window. The man shaded his eyes and waved.
“That’s… not how I pictured the devil.”
Cynthia pointed a finger at the man. “Look at his shadow.”
Although there was plenty of light left in the day, the summer sun had begun to slip down towards the horizon, and dark shadows dropped lazily across the lawn, towards the east. That is, all the shadows except for the man in the brown suit. His shadow was a jagged line in the opposite direction, pointing straight at the sun, defiantly reaching for the light.
The man cupped a hand to his ear. “No response? Alright, then.” He pulled on the watch chain which decorated his suit vest and brought out a small multi-colored ball. He held it between thumb and index finger, then squeezed, crushing it and releasing a shimmering gray cloud of vapor into the air.
“The devil is in my driveway.” Egan stared into the distance.
“A devil. And he’s not the one we have to worry about right now.”
Before she could answer, something slammed against the outside wall, like someone had thrown a couch against the house. Immediately it was echoed on the other side of the room.
Cynthia dashed across the room, grabbing Egan’s bloody shirt from the floor. She used it to wipe a crimson symbol across his bedroom door, then slammed it shut. Placing her back to the door, she scanned the windows.
“It's a revenant,” she said.
Egan stared at her blankly. She re-phrased: “A pissed-off ghost.”
That one got through. “Okay,” he said. “What do we do?”
“What stops a revenant?” Cynthia rubbed her forehead and squinted, reminding Egan of a student trying to recall some fact for a test. “Eucalyptus, ivory, and uh... base metals.”
“Base metals. They corrode quickly, like its soul. Symbolic magick. You wouldn't understand.”
“Ivory!” Egan pointed at the box that had started so much trouble.
“Ha! Clever! He wants us to use the box to defeat it.” She shuddered and grabbed Egan’s shoulder, painfully close to his recently bandaged wound. He managed to smother a groan as she turned his face to hers.
“Listen, no matter what happens to me, no matter what happens to you. No matter what.” Cynthia held his gaze with intense eyes. “We can not let him have that box.”
There was a boom above Egan's bed that made him feel like he'd just had his head shoved into a bass drum. They both jumped and Cynthia dropped her grip. Egan ran to the window and saw that the brown suited smiling man was gone.
Another boom reverberated on the opposite wall, sounding like the ocean depths pressing in on a submarine's hull. The room filled with the odor of rotten eggs and old fish, and the door to Egan’s bedroom bent in, curving impossibly.
“The ward’s not going to last,” said Cynthia. “Look in the first aid kit. Is there any eucalyptus cream in there?”
Egan turned away, concentrating on what little he could hope to understand. “Metals. Like silver? Silver bullets?”
“No. Tin, copper...” Cynthia’s head snapped around. “Lead!” She grabbed a handful of miniature soldiers from Egan's shelf, sliding their tiny round bases between her fingers, leaving the figures to stick out past her fist, like strange, fantasy-flavored brass knuckles.
Whatever ward held the revenant at bay collapsed and the bedroom door shattered, showering them with splinters. A shifting, gaseous form began to squeeze into the room, its touch corroding the doorframe where pencil ticks marked Egan’s heights since fourth grade. Cynthia charged at the revenant, her battle-cry rattling the windows. Egan reached for a miniature. He almost grabbed the dashing imperial inspector general, but memories of the hours spent painting it stayed his hand. Snatching a selection of figures he felt he could part with, he turned to join in the fray.
Cynthia was amazing. She was a whirlwind, spinning and slashing and gouging. Her arms bore streaks of blood like sergeant's stripes but she kept fighting, and the nebulous gray form at his bedroom door seemed to be weakening. Egan tried to walk forward to help, but Cynthia was such a blur of motion that he was afraid to get too close.
He held back, shifting position, unsure what to do, when he heard a car door slam outside. Even through the sound of Cynthia's battle, Egan could hear his father's gentle curses about the garage door not working. Leaping on his bed, he pressed his face to the window and saw his parents walking to the front door, fumbling with grocery bags and the house keys.
Egan pounded on the window and the revenant howled again, a raw sound laced with pain and rage. Egan's mother looked up, eyes wide and mouth pursed in concern. Her eyes met his and for a moment he thought sure he'd wake from this dream at any second. That was before the front door was thrown open, tearing the keys out of his father's hands. Arms shot out of the doorway, pulling his father over the threshold. Egan's mother had time to let out a single, heart-breaking scream before a pale figure in a winter coat shot forward and grabbed her by the hair, dragging her inside. She left one shoe and a bag of groceries laying on the front stoop. Broken eggs and spilled cake mix puddled together in the scalloped ‘welcome’ of the entry mat.
Egan felt the thud of the front door slamming shut, immediately matched by the sound of Cynthia slamming into the wall next to him. She crumpled onto his bed, plain brown sheets and comforter breaking her fall. She forced herself upright and spit out a bright stream of blood across his pillow. Unexpectedly, Egan thought of going to the ballpark with his dad and seeing baseball players spitting tobacco. The realization that there might not be any more of those trips almost made him cry.
Cynthia didn't spare him a glance as she rose from the bed and strode back to the doorway, grabbing another handful of leaden knights and barbarians along the way. Egan looked at the shifting form in the doorway, an ashen gray smear dancing between two worlds. It seemed to move slower now, and jutting from its murky form were several of Egan's elaborately painted figures, where Cynthia had struck with enough force to bury them into the thing's not-flesh.
As Cynthia and the thing resumed their feints and jabs, Egan looked for a way around them, to get downstairs to his parents. He wondered if the brown suited man and his friends would kill them, then banished the thought. He focused on the immediate threat: the revenant.
The gray shape was definitely hurt, but it seemed like the miniatures weren't long enough to do serious damage. They needed something bigger. Lead pipes? No. What else? He almost screamed when inspiration struck.
Egan threw himself onto the ground and fished an arm underneath his bed. There it was, a three-foot length of tin tube. Salvaged from a hobby store clearance sale, it had been destined for use as cannon barrels on imperial siege weaponry, but now it had a greater calling. He cradled it to his chest and grabbed a baseball glove from under the bed as well, slipping it on to protect his hand from the sharp hollow end.
One end of the tube nestled in the leather palm of his glove, he charged at the thing blocking the doorway. He came at the revenant low, tin tube out in front of him like a lance, and when he felt the impact he gave it an extra shove and twist, sinking it into the nightmare creature's torso.
The air was shattered by a horrifying screech, and a gray clawed hand swung towards him faster than Egan could follow. But even faster was Cynthia, tackling the revenant, taking the force of its blow and driving the tube in even deeper.
Cynthia collapsed, but the gray monster that had invaded Egan's room was seriously hurt. It staggered, flickering in and out of sight, then was gone. There was a gust of what sounded like wind trapped inside the walls of the house, rushing upwards into a muffled explosion through the roof. Lead soldiers and the tin tubing dribbled to the floor. Egan’s bravest warriors had corroded to stumps.
He stumbled to Cynthia and grabbed her arm. She seemed badly hurt, and he was afraid to pull her to her feet. As he hovered above her, undecided, he heard a scream from downstairs. His mother's scream.
A voice followed the scream, low and calm and filled with snake-oil confidence.
“Son, would you care to parlay?”
Egan looked towards the door, to the hallway and the stairs leading to the first floor. He was aware of Cynthia moving, crawling towards the box where it had fallen during the fight with the revenant. But he couldn't take his eyes off the doorway, and the voice that called to him from downstairs, where his parents were held.
He edged into the hallway on a tentative foot, peeking down the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs was the man in the suit, elbow on the handrail, one foot on the first step. He caught Egan’s eye and flashed his best Sunday Preacher smile.
“Young man, I'd like to trade one thing for another,” he said. “And I bet you can guess what those particular items are, can't you?” Ash drifted from his cigar, landing on carpet that Egan wasn’t even allowed to walk across while wearing shoes.
Egan could hear Cynthia moving around in his room. He glanced back and saw that she'd made it to the box and was curled up around it like a child hugging a stuffed animal, one arm twitching as it dragged a pattern across the floor.
“Looking for some help from the peanut gallery up there?” The man cupped a hand to his ear and leaned forward in an exaggerated pose. “Well, before you ask your friend's opinion, why don't you ask her why in the name of Jove she's in your house at all?”
Egan chewed his lip, thinking, as the man continued.
“I mean, it was clever. I didn't expect her to open the box where she might put so many people in danger and all...” He scratched his neck, long strokes of supposed indifference. “But it don't seem that fair to you and yours, now does it?”
Egan took another step into the hallway, then looked back at Cynthia, curled up and perhaps unconscious on his bedroom floor. The first aid kit she'd used to bind his wounds was by the dresser, bandages and gauze bleeding out onto the carpet. She didn't speak, didn’t even open her eyes, but he could hear what she'd have said. “Don’t listen to him, kid. You know me better than that.”
“I know you've probably got a whole bill of goods from that little Sin Titulo witch up there. That means 'Untitle--
“I know what it means,” Egan snapped back, surprising himself with the force behind the words.
“Oh. Smart boy.” The salesman spoke with tightened lips. “So you know that she's using you as a human shield.”
Egan shook his head.
“No? Then what happened to you? What happened to you parents?”
“I'm only here because she dragged me kicking and screaming. You think I want to come here and mess with nice people like you and your folks?” He did a half-twirl, indicating the house and neighborhood. “Heck no! The kind of people who call the police are more hassle than they're worth. In fact, I bet you anything there's…” He raised a finger to his lips, the picture of deep thought. “Three or four cruisers headed our way right now. And if they show up while we're still here there's going to be nothing but sorrow for everyone involved. And I don't want that, no I don't.” He shook his head solemnly and hooked his thumbs in his belt.
“Now that Little Miss upstairs, she knew I don't like to involve bystanders in our fights, so she thought she'd open up that box while she was nestled in among you folks. And just to be safe, she came over to the neighbor's house.” He clucked his tongue in disapproval. “Might as well invite the bomb squad to stop by for coffee while they detonate some suspicious packages.”
Egan's heart sank. He hadn't known why Cynthia had come over, or why she'd needed batteries or knives. Was he just a speed bump to slow down the bad guys?
“So son, here's what I want to do,” the salesman in brown leaned back, chest puffed out, and rubbed his hands together in a 'let's make a plan' gesture.
“You go up there and take that nasty ol' tackle-box-- the source of all this trouble-- and bring it down to me. You do that,” the man smiled and held out his arms. “Well, you do that and I'll leave you and your parents in peace. That sound fair?”
Egan wasn't so foolish to believe a devil would ever be fair. “Why do you need me?”
“Why do I need you? Fair enough.” He gave Egan a thumb’s-up, like a politician working a town hall debate. “Okay. Your little friend's got a design around her that makes it kind of difficult for me and my associates to get it on our own.”
Egan looked at Cynthia again. When she'd grabbed the box she'd also grabbed one of his paint markers from his craft table. She'd drawn out an insignia in an asymmetric loop around herself, a bigger version of the one she’d scrawled on his door, and now lay curled inside it, eyes closed, the blood-smeared box clutched to her chest.
“Now that big gray fella who was here before, he could just blow through that thing, and I s'pose I could just wait around for him to come back and...” the salesman gave an exaggerated shudder. “But none of us want that, do we?”
Egan shook his head, dreading the revenant's return.
“Exactly. So go get the box,” the man mimed picking up a package. “Bring it down here,” his fingers walked the invisible package back down the stairs, “and you can be reunited with your momma and daddy.” He turned to the kitchen and called out, “Guys, bring Mom and Dad out here, okay?”
There was a shuffling, and three men dressed like the stranger who'd attacked them in the garage emerged, pushing and pulling Egan's parents between them. They both looked like they’d been roughed up—swollen eyes and ugly red knots on their cheekbones. His mother had a dish towel shoved into her mouth as a make-shift gag, and his father’s right arm hung limp at his side, flopping with each step in an unnatural, rag-doll fashion.
The brown-suited salesman beamed.
“See? Everyone here's 100% alive.” He pointed at Eagan. “It's on you to keep it that way, son.”
Egan didn't say anything, just backed into his room, eyes darting from his parents to the devilish salesman at the foot of the stairs. At the doorway to his room he froze. It felt like he was walking into a foreign land. Most every object that he held dear was broken, upended or melted in a puddle. The girl of his fantasies was curled up in a ball, wrapped around some kind of mystical box and bleeding on his carpet.
He walked to her, stopping at the edge of her hastily drawn protective wards. The talkative man downstairs had said that they wouldn't hurt him, but still... He edged a shoe forward, next to and then above the painted lines.
He froze. Cynthia lay unmoving, her breathing heavy, the muscles in her thighs twitching lightly as if she were dreaming. Egan had indulged in more than a few daydreams over the summer about this beautiful, indescribable girl, the chance encounters he'd hoped for, the deep talks and the stolen kisses his imaginary self would have had the courage to attempt.
But looking at her broken form he didn’t see a fantasy. He could only see a real person, the kind of girl who would stride into battle armed with a handful of lead soldiers, or dive in front of an undead monster to save his life. He saw her clutching that damn box, with its intricate, mystical runic writing...
Egan made his decision.
He pulled his foot back and turned around to face the hallway. The smiling man was standing at the top of the stairs, staring at Egan and Cynthia. And at the box, with its intricate writing on every surface.
Egan called out, “How do I know you'll let my parents go?”
“Because I don't care about them. Because I just want what's mine, and then I'll go.”
Egan pointed back at Cynthia. “You promise you won't hurt her?”
The man placed a hand over his right breast.
“I do not care if she lives or dies, son. I sincerely don't.”
“Then you'll let all of us go?”
The corner of the man's mouth curled up, and red embers in his cigar stub glowed bright.
“I just... want... that box. Now go get it before I get angry.”
Egan turned on his heel and reached Cynthia in a few paces. This time she stirred as he reached down and grasped the box. She looked at him with desperate eyes as he pulled it from her weakened grip.
“Runes,” he whispered, and placed his hands over hers. Whether from understanding or exhaustion, her fingers slipped away.
Runes lined the box cover once again, and Egan tried not to let the devil in the hallway see him peek at the writing as he took the box. He scanned its surface, reading the script that he knew intimately from hours of writing it, brushstroke by tiny brushstroke on the banners of the 4th Imperial Infantry.
As soon as he was away from the circle the brown suited man was on top of him, wrenching the box from his grip. Instead of fighting back Egan shoved the box towards the man, its lid open, as he swiped at the false cowboy’s face.
The cigar stub perched between the man’s lips popped out and tumbled into the box. Egan snapped the lid shut.
With a curse that was new to Egan's ears, the man palmed the box with one hand and struck Egan with the other. Points of light danced in his vision, followed by more explosive pain as the man hit him again, a solid punch that landed on the still open, still seeping wound in his chest. Even his jaw ached as he clenched his teeth tight against the agony.
The brown-suited man backhanded Egan, splitting his lip open and sending him stumbling across the room. Egan struck the wall, his head snapping back hard enough to dent the drywall. He slumped to the floor. Through one swollen eye the room swayed around him, the devil and the box performing an off-time waltz. Egan stared at the box, and prayed he’d been right. Already it was beginning to glow, the writing on its sides and top shifting shape faster and faster.
The man adjusted his hat and squinted at the box, whether from curiosity or a desire to reclaim his cigar, Egan didn't know. In the end it didn't matter. The runes were a recipe, and Egan had recognized the ingredients at last. The blood of innocents, fire, and desire. The blood was his, fallen into the box when Cynthia tended to his wound, and the fire had come from the devil’s cigar.
Pursing his lips, the brown-suited man tapped a finger on the lid, and the box swung open. Light glowed from the box, illuminating the man’s face from below. Egan waited, praying that the recipe was complete. But nothing more happened. Maybe simply looking at it wasn’t enough.
Egan’s voice thick and distant, swollen mouth fumbling as he spoke.
“She said that whatever happened, not to let you get inside that box.”
The man glared at Egan, as though he might stride over and silence him with the heel of a snakeskin boot. Instead, the man’s impossibly wide smile reappeared, filled with impossibly white teeth. Above the smile, his eyes were hungry.
“Is that so?” The man tilted the box and looked straight in. The light increased, lighting him up as though a searchlight had just been turned on. There was even a hum in the air, a hum Egan could hear but also feel, deep in the roots of his molars.
“Whoa, now,” said the brown-suited man.
His trembling became a full-on seizure as the light grew brighter, its beam narrowing. His hat lifted off his head and evaporated. The light pushed the flesh of his face backwards, contorting his cheeks into a terrible rictus, a mockery of his once-confident grin. His hair followed the hat—stripping away from his skull, dissolving to flakes, and then fine particles, and then nothing. Eagan watched the cowboy’s head dissolve, flesh, then bone, teeth and all. An after-image lingered in the light, a ghost-face that screamed silently in the brightness.
Then the light was gone. The rest of the devil's body lay on the floor of the hallway, a withered, headless husk. Egan stayed on the floor where he lay, vaguely aware of shuffling and screams from downstairs. His mother yelled, “Out of my home!” followed by panicked chattering from the pale-faced men as they fled.
Sirens were approaching; the brown-suited man had been right about that much at least.
He turned to find Cynthia beside him, her face close to his. Behind the cuts and bruises, her gray eyes sparkled.
“You did good, you know that?” she said.
Egan managed a twitchy grin, a mixture of bravado and shock.
“You kicked his ass,” she said.
“Oh.” One of his teeth was loose. “Cause it kinda feels the other way around.”
From below, his parents called his name.
“My mom and dad promised me cake,” he said.
Cynthia tilted her head. Wordless, inquisitive.
“It’s my birthday.” He tried to laugh when he said it, but only managed a wheeze.
She disappeared and Egan twisted, looking to see where she’d gone, afraid that she’d evaporated back into his dreams. The sirens were louder, closer.
Then she was back, propping him up and placing a square shape in his hands. It was the box.
He stared at its strange off-white surface, covered in cuneiform writing.
“It’s your test,” he said. Stating the obvious was the best he could manage.
Cynthia coughed, and a bright spatter of red appeared on her lips. “It was,” she said. “Now it’s a birthday gift.” She tapped the ornate top. “Open it.”
Egan squinted at her. “Your test. Did you pass?”
“Just open the box.”
He pushed on the lid, expecting resistance. It swung open as if well-oiled. Sitting inside was a folded piece of colored paper. Egan fished it out, careful not to crumple it. Seated in his palm, it relaxed its folds, revealing a perfect origami swan.
Cynthia’s laugh was both exultant and punctuated with more coughing. Egan wondered if she’d broken a few ribs in the fight. He figured there was a good chance he’d broken a few of his own.
“It’s perfect,” she said.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Have you ever met a swan in real life?”
He shook his head.
“They’re kind of bastards,” she said. “But loyal friends.”
“Is that us?” he asked. “Friends?”
She squeezed his arm.
Heavy footsteps were coming up the stairs. Egan hoped it was EMTs and not the devil's foot soldiers. Cynthia rose to her knees, calling out for help as she crawled forward. With her back to him, Egan saw something else. Her rough tattoo was gone.
Instead, spanning the gap between her shoulders, the word Cygnus was finely scripted in delicate black ink.
Egan recognized the word, from some half-remembered book or class. It was an animal, maybe a bird. He looked down at the paper creation in his hand.
Oh, he thought. Of course. That makes as much sense as anything else that’s happened.
Then the EMTs were there, dark shapes who smelled of gauze and rubbing alcohol. He managed one more smile at Cynthia. She gave him a bloody thumbs-up then wiped her hand clean on his carpet. She was no half-formed dream girl.
And that made him indescribably happy.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.