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Authors: Peter Clines

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BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
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The woman was still heading more or less in George’s direction. There were a dozen yards between them. No more than ten parking spaces. She was two spaces from the man, ten feet at the most.

The three of them continued toward each other. George’s
pace quickened. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but the situation felt wrong.

The man’s awkward movements weren’t just because of the tight space between the cars. For a moment, George thought it was the same man he’d seen that morning, the one with the pale skin. But this man was taller, with darker hair and different clothes. He had the same half-drunken gait, though. He lurched toward the chattering woman with a certain focus that made George think of nature documentaries.

There were a few feet left between the man and woman. She pulled a set of keys free and gestured with them. A car behind George beeped twice. She looked up and saw George striding toward her.

Then the pale man wrapped his arms around her. He clawed at her chest and grabbed a mouthful of hair as she turned her head. He leaned into her and forced her away from the cars.

The young woman let out a brief shriek, as if she hadn’t decided if the attack upset her or just surprised her. Her phone clattered to the ground. She slapped at the hands, swore, and tried to get a better look at the man. Her expression was a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. The pale man smacked his lips together. It made a wet popping sound with a hard tap beneath it, as if he was snapping his teeth down on her hair.

“Hey,” called George. He broke into a run for the last few yards. “Let her go.”

The man showed no sign of hearing George or of letting go of the woman. He pawed her some more and bent his head to the soft curve where her neck ran into her shoulder. She smacked him with her purse and her face tightened. The man was a stranger. She was getting attacked in broad daylight. He leaned on her even more, pushing her toward the ground.

George grabbed the pale man by the shoulders. The suit jacket was damp. The man was soft, with no muscle tone at all. George twisted and yanked him off the woman.

It was one of those perfect moments of balance and strength, the ones martial artists train for. The man was thrown through the air and crashed onto the trunk of an old sedan, raising a
cloud of dust. George wasn’t sure if it came from the car or the man.

“Fucking creeper,” snapped the young woman.

George took a step to place himself between her and the man. “You okay?”

She tugged at her shirt. “Yeah,” she said. She took a step, scooped up her phone, and scowled. “You’re paying for this, asshole,” she barked at the man, holding up the cracked screen.

The creeper waved his legs until he slid off the car’s trunk. He ended up on his feet more from gravity and inertia than effort. He turned to George and the woman and smacked his lips together again.

The man was more of an oversized teen. His eyes were dusty gray, like old Plexiglas that had been scratched a thousand times. George wondered if he might be an albino, but didn’t think the eyes were right for that, either. One side of the man’s nose was a ragged flap, as if something had gone in his nostril and ripped out the side. His skin wasn’t just pale, it was corpse white.

The creeper took a shaky step forward and his mouth opened and closed. There was something mindless about the movement, like a fish. George heard the man’s teeth clicking against each other, as if they were chattering in the hot sun. It was a familiar sound, but he wasn’t sure from where.

“Do you know karate or something?” asked the woman.

“No,” said George. “I was just lucky.”

“Well, feel free to kick his ass.”

“Maybe you should call the police.”

“Hello.” She glared at him. “He broke my phone.”

The pale man’s arms came back up and he took two more steps. “Okay, you need to back off,” George told him. “Just stop now before this gets any worse.”

The man took another step and seemed to stumble. George reached out to catch him. The man bent down and bit George’s arm.

“Oh, shit!” yelled the girl.

George shook his arm and slapped at the creeper’s head. The man’s teeth were caught in his sleeve, but he got it free. He took a
few steps away from the man. The woman took a few steps back, too. She glanced at the arm. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. He didn’t even break the skin.”

“Lucky. You’d probably need half a dozen shots.”

The creeper straightened up as if he wore a backpack full of weights. His head shifted side to side. His teeth gnashed together four times. One of them cracked and a gleaming piece of enamel spun to the ground.

George lunged forward, put his hands on the man’s shoulders, and shoved. The pale man staggered back, hit the back bumper of the car, and tipped over backward. His skull bounced off the trunk with a loud clang, and his body flopped on the pavement between the sedan and a red minivan.

“Shit,” said the woman. “I think you killed him with your karate.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“He’s not moving.”

The body on the ground moved. It groaned once. It rolled over. The oversized teen blinked twice, then twice again. “Whoooooo,” he said. He burped and the smell of cheap beer wafted across George. “You have an awesome rack,” the teen said to the side of the car.

“Asshole,” said the woman. “You broke my phone.”

George stared at the teen. Down between the cars, out of the direct sun, his skin didn’t seem so pale, and his eyes were a faint blue, not the dull gray they’d looked like in the light. The side of his nose was covered with Magic Marker, and there were half-removed traces of it across his face. His hair had the stylishly rumpled look of someone who spent a lot of time making it look like they spent no time on their hair.

The creeper gave a drunken cackle. He rolled onto all fours and scampered between the cars. Once he was clear he staggered back to his feet and lurched away toward the crowds of students and parents.

“Asshole,” she yelled after him.

“Do you want to call security?” asked George. “I saw it all.”

The woman didn’t even look at him. “Do you know who he is?”


“Well, that’s not going to help, is it? Goddammit,” she muttered, cradling the cracked phone, “I had plans for tonight.”

George opened his mouth to say something else but she was already walking past him to her car. He looked after the creeper and caught a glimpse of the man stumbling through the crowd. He thought about calling security, but the girl was right. “Drunken frat boy” wasn’t much of a description.

Plus, George admitted, he wasn’t sure what the young man had looked like. He’d been so confident about the pale eyes and the torn nose, but it must’ve been his imagination. Probably from the girl, Madelyn, talking about dead people.

His Nextel chirped. “George,” it twanged. “Where the hell are you, buddy? What’s keeping you?”

He unholstered the phone. The whole half hour was gone. At this point he was running late. “Sorry, Jarvis,” said George. “I got held up. A girl got jumped.”

“Jesus. Y’all okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. Just a frat boy copping feels. I got him off her.”

“Security there?”

The woman’s car started up and pulled out. She didn’t even glance at George. “Nope,” he said. “Once he was off her they both took off.”

“Y’all want to make a report anyway? Just in case?”

“I’m pretty sure it was nothing.”

“Well, then hurry it up,” his boss told him. “I had Mark punch your card for you. You know they’re getting all Nazi about overtime.”

“Yeah,” said George, “I know. I’m about five minutes away. See you soon.”

He clipped the Nextel back onto his belt and took one last look over his shoulder. The shuffler had vanished into the human traffic between buildings. It struck George that he should go after the man, that the attack wasn’t nothing, but he couldn’t say why.


the air.

There’s a crowd of people below me, gathered in the street. It’s dark out, but there are hundreds of people. Maybe thousands. I’m not sure what’s brought so many people out at night.

Then, as one, they look up at me. Every head tips back at once, every set of eyes finds me at the same time. I see their eyes and remember I’m in the bad dream again. Dull irises stare at me. A constant stream of silent words pours from their jaws.

And there’s something else in the crowd. Something huge. An even bigger monster than the ones around me, twice as tall with mottled, scaly skin. Its arms and legs are long and thin, and its tail lashes like an angry snake. It has curling horns and dozens of long teeth, but the same dull eyes.

I hit the ground behind the big monster, feet first. Some part of my mind knows falling from that height means I’m dead. The impact shakes me, but—as things happen in dreams—I don’t break any bones. I don’t even feel any pain.

One of the monster-people grabs at me and I kick it away. Another one reaches for me and I shove it back with my foot. I turn and one of them is right in front of me. It’d been a dark-haired man with a stubbly face. One of its eyes is gone. The empty socket looks sticky.

I throw a punch that catches the monster on the jaw. Like
falling from the sky, I barely feel it when I connect. It’s as if the monster’s head is just a paper sculpture. The skull bursts like a monster piñata. One side collapses under my punch and dark gore sprays out the other side. The monster crumbles to the ground. I’ve killed it.

No, I tell myself. I look at the dark stains on my knuckles. I haven’t killed it. It’s already dead. It’s dead and walking around.

There’s a name for a creature like this, but in the hazy world of the dream I can’t remember it.

One of them paws at me from behind. I drive my elbow back and hear a crunch like a breaking bird’s nest. My fist comes forward, takes the head right off another monster, and the ball of bone and flesh spins off into the horde. A second punch turns one of their faces into dark jelly. A sweeping backhand crushes two skulls.

And then the big creature’s in front of me. It isn’t just a monster, I realize. It’s a demon. A real-life, actual demon.

Past the demon stands a spiked wall with people on it. Living people. They have guns. They’re shooting the big thing and also the little ones. The instant I see them I feel like I know them, the way strange faces are familiar in dreams.

The demon holds on to the wall, on to the gate, with spider-like hands. The long fingers wrap around the spikes and pull. The gate shakes and squeals from its efforts.

I don’t think. There’s no time to think.

I grab the creature’s tail. The beast is three times my size, probably four times my weight. I throw my shoulders back, pull, and the strange physics of this world take over. The creature flies into the air. It sails over my head and crashes to the ground behind me.

I jump, dragging the tail with me, and sail over the monster like the hero in a Hong Kong action film. I lash out at another—

Who do I watch action films with? Someone explained wirework to me. Someone I watch a lot of movies with. It’s a blank spot in my dream-memory.

I lash out at another one of the gray-skinned monsters as the wires lower me back to earth. I pull on the tail again, but this
time I lean back, dig my heels in, and swing the demon to the side. The wires lift it up and spin it in a wide circle. Its scaly body smashes down dozens of the dead-people monsters.

I spin it once, twice, and let go. The beast soars through the crowd, crushing skulls as it goes. It crashes into the concrete pillar of a parking structure on the east side of Lemon Grove. The impact sounds like—

Lemon Grove. The street I’m standing on is called Lemon Grove. And so is—

The gate. The people on the gate are cheering. I glance over my shoulder as I backhand another dead man. A few of the people on the wall are calling my name. My real name. The one they gave me.

My name is Saint—


in the driver’s seat. Another night without any quality sleep. Another red light on Wilshire Boulevard. Another crowd of pedestrians shuffling along without a care in the world, blocking the street long after the light turned green. He’d been late for work more in the past week than in most of his career.

The radio droned on. He’d ended up on some kind of retro station with lots of Matchbox Twenty and Green Day. At the moment, Bruce Springsteen was belting out the chorus to “Radio Nowhere.”

He was going to have to start setting his alarm earlier. Not a pleasant thought considering how little sleep he was already getting. Unless he could figure out a better route to work, though, he wasn’t going to have much choice. Traffic was stacked up on the road as far as he could see.

The light turned green just as he tapped another preset on the radio. An obese man with a thick beard waddled past George’s car. He was too big to move any faster. His feet barely came off the ground as he walked. They scraped against the pavement with each step.

The car’s engine revved. It growled like an angry animal. George felt it fight against the brake.

The man turned and glared at him. George tried to look apologetic
and mouthed a “sorry.” The heavy man stood there for a moment, wasting precious seconds of the green light.

“Just go,” said the deejay on the new radio station. “Just run him down, man.”

George’s eyes flitted from the man in the road to the radio.

“Seriously, bro,” said the radio. “Just let me run him down.”

The brake pushed up against his foot. George gripped the wheel and pushed back. The deejay grunted and swore in Spanish.

The heavy man gave George a final, pointed look and then lumbered the rest of the way across the street.

The voice on the radio began talking about saints and the departed. The voice was very emphatic about it, but George was only half paying attention. He wondered how phrases like “run him down” had worked into the sermon.

Wilshire was clear for the rest of his drive. He stopped for one more light. The engine idled. He used the moment to switch from the religious channel to more music. The radio responded by singing about the virtues of Stacy’s Mom.

BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
10.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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