Awakening – Chapter 1 & 2
The steady beam reflected by the Meceta Head Light’s Fresnel lens wavered. First lit in 1894, the light had been many things to many people: a warning to passing ships, a guide to local fisherman, a source of pride, a curiosity, a trap. For Rebekah, the light most often served as a locus of irritation and contention. No matter how much she begged him to stay inside, her father buttoned up his raincoat, grabbed his katana from the umbrella stand, and walked out into the storm.
“You’re going to kill yourself with that thing!” she yelled after him, knuckles white where she gripped the open door.
He stopped—the first time he’d turned around in months—and looked back. “Secure the house; storm’s gonna be nastier than usual. And princess…” Twenty-four years old and he still called her princess when something worried him. Shadows from the night and warm light streaming out from the house fought for dominance over his strong features, casting him one moment in darkness and the next in light. The rain dripped off his hood like a dozen tiny waterfalls speckling the coast. Weariness dragged his bony shoulders down. He wasn’t as young as he’d once been, back when three consecutive nights of storms had put a dreadful sparkle in his eyes. Instead, he appeared deflated, like someone had popped the balloon holding him up and it slowly drained the air out of him. He started to reach out for her but stopped himself mid-motion. “Stay inside. No matter what you hear. Or see.”
She ran out from the shelter of the porch after him, rain be damned, but nature had other ideas. The wind shoved her back as it summersaulted across the ocean waves, up the sheer cliff walls, and through the stout evergreens bowed down from a lifetime of relentless storms like monks at prayer. A flash of light lit the yard in skeletal hues, blinding her, as thunder so loud she felt the pressure in her chest growled a warning. When her sight returned, her father had disappeared down the path toward the lighthouse.
“Crazy old loon!” she shouted and wished it’d make her feel better.
Flicking the cold water out of her eyes, she glanced over at the lighthouse, sighed, and then hustled back into the elegant, two-story Colonial keeper’s house her parents had restored into a bed-n-breakfast. Some of their guests—an old couple from Ohio, the Mathewsons, and a younger couple with their five-year-old son—stared at her from where they huddled around the fireplace. They’d heard everything.
Rebekah blushed and smoothed out her blouse, her fingers from trembling. “Nothing to worry about. My father just takes his duties at the lighthouse very seriously,” she said in way of explanation. “I’ll make everyone some hot cocoa, shall I?”
Before they could answer, she fled through the hall to her left and into the b-n-b’s guest kitchen, slamming the door shut behind her a little louder than necessary. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, she popped the cap on the periwinkle countertop and sank down to the floor. Rebekah tossed back half the bottle before she came up for air, and then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Although her father could be a little harsh at times or distant, he loved her. Not all daughters were lucky enough to know that. She shouldn’t let her father’s craziness bother her, should just treat it as a quirk like everyone else, but she didn’t know how much longer she could watch him cling to his delusions.
He’d always spent stormy nights up in the drafty lighthouse in his days with the Parks Services. Although the automated light didn’t require tending, and when it malfunctioned only a specialist could help, her mother said he liked to be there in case the power went out or something broke that he could fix. Fishermen depended on that light. Boats. It was just another of his duties. Yet he never stopped: not after Mom died, not after the candles had been blown out on his retirement cake, and not after he started rambling about monsters and gateways to another dimension. Normal people didn’t believe they had to go out in storms and slay demons like some superhero in a cartoon. No, that special brand of crazy belonged to her father alone.
Maybe it was Alzheimer’s. Or dementia. He was only fifty-four, however, and that was too early, right? Tomorrow she’d make him go to the doctor and get checked out. Even though he’d hate her for it.
She titled the bottle back and finished the beer.
The bed-n-breakfast had no television and no phone, so when nature put on a display, it was in full stereo. The lights flickered. Thunder constricted her chest and the jars of preserves in the refrigerator rattled at her back like a beggar’s cup. The next bolt of lightning struck so hard it threw her forward. The beer bottle in her hand shattered against the cabinet as she tried to catch her balance, and sharp pain shot up her arm as glass embedded in her palm. Shit. Wincing, she yanked out the biggest piece with her good hand and set it on the countertop.
Two more blasts of lightning struck, this time a little further away toward Cape Creek Bridge, or so it sounded, and someone screamed as the electricity died. Getting to her feet, Rebekah yanked a clean dish cloth from the drawer by the sink and wrapped it around her injured hand with a wince. She had guests. With her father out chasing faeries and catching his death of cold, running the bed-n-breakfast was her responsibility. Her hand would wait.
“Is everyone okay?” Rebekah asked as she opened the kitchen door and hurried to the small parlor where she’d left the others.
“I think so. What happened?”
A pair of lanterns was tucked in one of the sideboards in the event of such an emergency, and she groped her way over to them. The fireplace cast a small pool of light around the others, but it didn’t extend across the hall. “Just the storm. One strike hit pretty close, probably knocked out the power. Don’t worry, I’m getting some light. If I can just reach…there. Got it.” Using her good hand, she set the lanterns on the table and grabbed one of the long matches from the box near the fireplace. Clenching the matchbox beneath her chin, it took a few tries, but she managed to strike a light in both lanterns. She opened the wicks, flooding the room in golden hues.
“What happened to your hand?” the younger woman asked, circling the small, round table. They had just arrived that morning, and for the life of her, Rebekah couldn’t remember the woman’s name. Jessica something. Or Jennifer.
Rebekah hid her hand behind her back. “Just some glass. No big deal. Is anyone hurt? I heard a scream.”
“The lightning surprised me is all.” Mrs. Mathewson wrapped her grey shawl tighter around her shoulders.
The young woman, her curly chestnut hair cut short to her shoulders, pointed at Rebekah’s hidden hand. “Let me see. I’m a nurse.”
Rebekah hesitated. It was her job to look after guests, not the other way around.
The nurse, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer, stepping around to take Rebekah’s hand and unwrap the towel. She bit her lip. “This isn’t good. Come on. I need to wash it. Do you have any thread or a needle?”
“In my room downstairs.” She gritted her teeth to keep from crying out in pain. Seeing it made everything hurt worse. “And there’s a first aid kit on the wall.”
The young woman grabbed a lantern and took off running toward the back of the house as her husband directed Rebekah to sit in one of the upholstered antique chairs. Blood saturated the towel.
“I think that’s all the excitement these old bones can handle,” Mr. Mathewson stood and walked to the stairs, stopping to pat Rebekah on the shoulder as he grabbed one of the lanterns. “We’re going to bed.”
“Goodnight Mr. and Mrs. Mathewson.” Rebekah smiled at them. “See you at breakfast.”
He grunted. “If the power comes back on before then.”
“I’m sure it will.”
Jessica or Jennifer returned as a flash lit the house, followed by the echoing peel of thunder a second later. The storm was moving away. Good. At least her father’d had enough time to reach the lighthouse before the worst started.
“Come on, son,” the other man said to his red-haired child, gesturing back toward the fire as his wife settled next to Rebekah, “let’s finish our game of Connect Four. Let your mom work in peace. Wha’d’ya say?”
Rebekah smiled as the boy bounced over to the pile of games he had spread across the rug and began separating pieces. She loved when they had children staying at the b-n-b. Loved the energy they brought to the old home, waking up the century-old wood. One day, maybe a child of her own would do the same.
“Here. Drink this.”
Rebekah took a swig of the whisky her savior had brought up from the basement and prepared herself for what was about to happen. Normally, the harsh stuff wasn’t for her, but tonight was proving to be an unusual night in many respects. “Where’d you find this?”
“Medicine cabinet.” The nurse moved Rebekah’s hand above the basin of water. “Go on, don’t be shy. Drink up. This is gonna sting a bit.”
Rebekah did and then set the bottle back on the table. Drops of her blood exploded on the surface of the water like miniature atomic bombs, mimicking the pounding thunder outside. She winced as a shard was yanked out near her index finger. “I can’t thank you enough, Je…”
Twice that day she’d embarrassed herself in front of guests. “I’m sorry. I should have known that.”
Lacey shrugged her shoulders, her blonde highlights dancing in the lamplight. “You seem to have more important things occupying your thoughts than my name.”
The comment had been an invitation to unload, Rebekah knew, but she’d broken enough of her rules for one day. Letting a guest stitch her hand after the power had gone out…okay, that she could justify. Venting about her father or asking the woman’s medical advice, however, was inexcusable. Lacey was a guest and needed to be treated as one. Staying at a bed-n-breakfast should be relaxing. An escape. The rain holding everyone hostage indoors was bad enough; Rebekah didn’t need to add to it.
“You’re sweet to say so. Tell me your favorite dish, and I’ll make sure to prepare it tomorrow for breakfast. Gourmet food is the best way I know to say thanks.” Biting her lip as another shard came out of her hand and was dropped in the water, Rebekah forced a crooked smile.
“Well, I don’t know how gourmet it is, but I love pecan waffles.” Lacey looked up from where she was working. “Won’t the milk be spoiled by then if the power doesn’t come back?”
“No. The refrigerator in the prep kitchen is on a generator and the ovens are gas, so everything should be fine. No need to worry.”
Lacey wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist and looked up. “I need to stitch that gash along the base of your palm. Three should be enough. Stay strong and hold still; I’ll do this as quickly as I can.”
Rebekah never feared pain. Her childhood rolled by on mountain bikes and skateboards and 4-wheeling at the dunes; such activities came with a certain amount of risk and a half dozen broken bones. Her mother had been the one to take her repelling the first time and skiing. Rebekah would swear that her parents had bought and refurbished the dilapidated keeper’s house from the state more for the nearby hiking and climbing and kayaking than for the profit from the b-n-b. So when the needle pierced the soft pad of flesh under her thumb, she did what her mother taught her: looked out the window and counted backwards from ten.
A fresh swell of wind slammed into the house with renewed anger, and a flash of lightning lit up the yard.
She yelped and jerked up, the needle dangling from her hand as she ran to the pair of windows overlooking the front porch. “Who was that?”
“Who was who?”
“There. Standing outside the window. I swear I saw someone. I think…I think he was naked.” Now she sounded as crazy as her father. Great. Next she was going to start seeing demons and want to go buy herself a sword. She started toward the door. “I’ll go-”
By this time, Lacey’s husband, a barrel-chested man who looked like he’d been a defensive end in highschool, had abandoned his game and blocked Bekah’s path. “You stay here. I’ll go check the porch.”
She shook her head. “I can’t let you do that. This is my house, not yours. I’ll go.”
“Nonsense. If there really is someone out there, he might be dangerous or hurt. You’ll both be safer inside.”
She started to object, but he stopped her with a gesture.
“You’d better listen to him,” Lacey said as her son ran up to her side. She hugged him, kissed the top of his ginger hair, and then shooed him back to his games. “Now get your hand back over here.”
Although it went against everything she knew and felt, Rebekah sat and gave her hand back to the ministrations of her guest, and she watched as the woman’s husband put on his coat, grabbed a flashlight, and went outside. A chill wind crept in through the open door. Danger lurked in every shadow, crept in with every strange creak and groan of the house as the dim lantern light, like a candle at the bottom of a well, flickered fainter and fainter against the onslaught of the storm.
He’d be fine.
The porch was empty.
She’d just seen a light ghost, an illusion triggered by the blinding lightning. The Park Services had cleared the area out when the storm warning first sounded, and her father would have reached the lighthouse long ago. No one else would have a reason to be out in this weather. She’d been spending too much time alone with her father; his ravings were starting to affect her judgment and make her hallucinate. As if she needed more problems.
“There. All finished.”
Rebekah blinked. “Huh?” She looked down at her hand where three neat stitches closed her angry flesh.
Lacey squeezed some ointment on a gauze bandage and placed it over the stitches, taping it at the corners. “I’m finished, I said. Now I’m going to wrap the rest of your hand. You’ll have to take it easy for a few days. Get someone else to make the beds and straighten up, and then have those stitches removed in about five days. Understand? No lifting or sweeping or cooking. You shouldn’t even close your fist. It’s easy to get bacteria into cuts like that.”
“I won’t. Thank you.”
The front door opened and Lacey’s husband stomped inside, shaking the water off his coat and shoes. He clicked the flashlight off. “Nothing out there. At least, not anymore. I walked around the whole house to be certain.”
“Thank you so much.”
His cheeks dimpled when he smiled. “No problem. Good night.”
“Night.” Lacey and her son followed him upstairs.
Cradling her hand to her chest and nursing another beer, Rebekah kept vigil out the bay window for the next few hours as the storm slowly abated its fury. Evenings used to be her favorite. Once the guests had all gone to sleep, her mother and father would sometimes let her sneak out of her room in the basement and come upstairs to sit by the fireplace or play a game of cards. Euchre, canasta, rummy, blackjack—they’d play them all and laugh until the sound was absorbed into the very walls like insulation. Since her mom died, she’d missed those nights the most.
What had always been a loyal, but small, business nearly tripled when Rebekah took over managing the property, making efforts to expand their marketing outreach by using social media and getting one of the local ghost hunting shows to do a special on the supposed hauntings in the attic. That had been a crazy week of cameras and chaos; her father had hid in the lighthouse, not even coming back for meals. Adding an executive chef, Mia, had helped cater to the growing foodie market. They used only local produce and meats, and each morning prepared a unique seven-course breakfast. One guest, thinking to put the claim to a lie, stayed eight nights in a row just waiting for a dish to repeat; he’d brought his wife back every summer since.
Rebekah should be happier. Perhaps even ecstatic at the success.
So why did she feel as though someone had taken a melon baller and scooped out her insides, leaving only a hard shell behind?
A knock on the door startled her awake sometime later.
Blinking, she rubbed her eyes and looked around. The fire had devoured itself into a slow simmer and the lantern’s wick was nearly consumed so that only a tiny ring of light circled its base. She glanced at her watch: 2:49 a.m. Her father’d really outdone himself this time. Probably forgot his keys knowing him.
Rebekah stood and walked over to the small table where the lantern rested, twisting the gear to lengthen the wick. Blessed light chased away the shadows. Grabbing a fuzzy, white robe out from its hiding place in the cupboard near the door, she pushed her arms through the soft sleeves and tied the sash closed around her waist. Holding the lantern in the crook of her right elbow, she threw the door open wide.
“What were you thinking staying out so late, Dad…” She let the sentence die and hugged her waist with her free arm. In front of her, his hair and clothing dripping from the rain, stood the most attractive man she’d ever seen. “You’re…not my father.”
He grinned. “I hope not.” As if realizing what he just said, he blushed and looked at his feet for a second. His eyes impaled her as he looked back up. “My car broke down back the road a ways and my phone’s dead. Can I use yours to call a tow truck?”
It’s a little known fact that demons, upon first entering the human world, are drawn to bright light. Keepers have debated many reasons for this over the centuries: that the demons are weakened by the trans-dimensional journey and so can only see very bright lights; that they mistake the bright lights for a sign of a city or other large gathering of food; that, much as a human child might, demons simply liked shiny things. Whatever the cause, it made Gabe’s job all that much easier.
Bologna sandwich in one hand, machete in the other, he scanned the waves from beneath the porch of his dilapidated house at the base of the Willamook Light and waited for the first of them to show. The small house, nestled behind the sixty-five-foot tower, was the only patch of dry land on the tiny island off the Oregon coast. Three nights of breakers crashing over the jagged rock and incessant rain had soaked everything, but the tower took the brunt of the attack like the prow of a boat slamming into a wave, slicing it down the middle and protecting the house in its shadow. It was a good thing, too. Weakened from the constant damp, the timbers might collapse if he sneezed hard.
Taking another bite of his sandwich, Gabe chewed mechanically. If tonight was anything like the last two, he’d need his strength. A forked tongue of lightning arched from the clouds, slamming into the ocean. So it began. He had maybe seventy to seventy-five seconds before the first one reached him. Stuffing the rest of his sandwich in his mouth, he put in a pair of ear buds, lowered the goggles over his eyes, and pulled down the hood of his sweater. Two more shots of lightning lit the sky. Thirty seconds. He took out his phone—whoever invented the life-proof case tough enough to be run over by a car or dropped in a bathtub was a genius—and set it to play his Frank Sinatra demon slaying mix.
Gabe did a final check of his weapons: crossbow and spare quivers slung over his back, second machete sheathed on his belt, one curved dagger secured to each thigh, and throwing knives lining his vest above his Green Lantern t-shirt.
As the music kicked in with its swanky beat, he held his machete between his index and middle finger like a cigarette and danced out into the rain. “My story is much too sad to be told,” he hummed along with the music, stepping up on a small outcropping and scanning the waves. “But practically everything leaves me really cold.”
Seaweed clung to the demon’s arms and legs as it crawled up the jagged rocks, beady eyes glinting red in the darkness. Truly one of the uglier beasts he’d ever seen, the half-crab, half-scorpion demon had patchy, red carapace for skin; two sets of legs; and pinchers the size of a small car. Why did the big ones always come through first?
“I get no kick from champagne,” he continued singing, having missed the rest of the first verse while taking stock of his opponent. “Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all.”
Faster than should have been possible, the demon topped the rocks, perching almost bird like on its legs as it scanned the island. When it spotted Gabe, it gurgle-screeched in joy, snapping its pinchers and pulverizing the rock it stood on. It skittered across the small clearing toward Gabe as a second lightning bolt struck the distant ocean.
Up close, the demon reeked of sulfur and decay in that rotten-egg-two-day-old-road-kill kind of way. It lunged for Gabe mouth first, double rows of razor-sharp teeth glinting golden when the beam from the lighthouse light swept their way.
“So tell me why” —Gabe, instead of dodging, stepped forward into the demon, stabbing his machete through the creature’s neck with a crunch—“it should be true” —holding the hilt in both hands, he twisted the blade, popping the demon’s head clean from its neck as its massive pinchers snapped uselessly at his legs—“that I get a kick” —he kicked the carapace-head like it were a soccer ball, sending it back into the waves as the rest of the creature tumbled backward into the surf—“out of you.”
The shriek of an inhuman female voice drew his attention upward and away from his first kill of the night.
“Some, they may go for cocaine,” he mumbled, flicking the gore off his machete and sheathing it. With the body of a feathered bird and the torso of a woman, the harpy circled the lighthouse tower once, a flying chicken with DDs, blonde curls, and eyes like pools of midnight.
Gabe hated second-order demons. Hated killing something that looked even partially human so much so that he stopped mid-motion. For a terrible moment, the demon looked past him toward the shore and started flapping in that direction.
He was losing it.
“…one sniff,” he mumbled a little too late for his song as he waived his arms in the air, drawing its hunger toward himself. The harpy screamed again and flew toward him, claws extended. “…would bore me terrifically, too.”
Gabe drew his crossbow, readied a bolt, and aimed for the harpy’s eyes. He fired. The harpy flapped to the side, narrowly avoiding the bolt. It shrieked again as more lightning struck the nearby water.
It was fifteen feet away. He positioned another bolt, placed the horn of the crossbow on the ground and stepped on it, then pulled back on the handle until the mechanism clicked in place. Ten feet. Its blonde curls were plastered against the side of its face with water, and the thing was close enough to make out the too-human nipples on its breasts. Gabe shuddered.
He aimed the crossbow and fired the second shot. The creature dropped from the sky like a duck, circling twice before it exploded against a rocky outcropping in a burst of blood and feathers.
His voice fell flat. “Yet I get a kick out of you.”
Before the song ended, he took out one more demon, a three-eyed thing with a humped back and frail arms barely strong enough to climb up the rocks to the tiny island. A butcher could do his work. Or a trash collector. Or anyone handy with a large pair of scissors—like a kindergarten teacher. Gabe chuckled, picturing some young, smiling teacher with a pencil in her hair and paint on her dress out in the storm trying to lull a Gorgon to sleep with a bedtime story.
As the storm kicked into full swing and swells broke against the island like grenades, the music faded to a faint vibration in the back of his head that gave beat to his movements. He didn’t have to think, didn’t have to strategize his next move. He’d been Keeper at this seemingly abandoned light since his sixteenth birthday when his powers first awoke. That was a decade ago. A decade spent killing every time a storm struck.
Time faded out of meaning. The storm raged, each strike of lightning on the water allowing another demon to cross over into the world. Another monstrosity for him to kill like a logger felling trees—only for loggers, the trees didn’t fight back. And so he slaughtered to the beat of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Can’t We Be Friends” and “I Won’t Dance” and “Come Fly with Me” as he spent an entire quiver of bolts and half his supply of throwing daggers. Foul, putrid green blood dripped from his machetes; when drops hit his skin, they burned in such a way that even rain couldn’t wash off.
Each hour he fought, each time he was forced to expend energy healing from a cut or hit or broken bone, weakened him. By the time he’d cycled through his playlist, he’d had his arm broken twice, his calf hamstringed from the pinchers of an enormous scorpion, two serious blows to the head, and been poisoned, burned, and sliced more times than merited counting.
Blood oozed down his right arm from a gash. Pulling his goggles down around his neck, he put his back to the damp walls of his house and sank to the ground. The storm surge nearly topped the base of the island, and soon if it continued, he’d be forced to fight demons from the tower itself. Given the confined space and limited room for movement, it wasn’t a prime spot for killing a cockroach, much less trying to eliminate an errant demon. His other option, the roof of his house, was even less appealing. Although sturdier than it looked from a distance, the sloping roof was difficult to stand on, much less try to fight from. Fleeing to the mainland was always an option; his boat was tied up at the island’s small dock, but that meant giving up his post. Without a beacon to attract the demons, they could go anywhere. It might take him days to track them all down. The human causalities would be high, and so would the risk of exposure. No, even if it meant that he had to fight from the beacon room itself, he couldn’t leave. Gabe knew his duty, even if he often didn’t like it.
Pulling himself up, he pushed the door of his house open and grabbed the small cooler he’d prepared earlier. He guzzled two energy drinks, crushing the cans easily and tossing them in the recycling bin. Being a Keeper meant he was stronger and faster and had more stamina than the average person; it also gave him heightened senses and a wicked ability to heal. Unfortunately, those gifts left him ravenous. Gabe snatched a protein bar from the cooler and opened it. He ate it in two bites and reached for another. The second he gobbled more slowly, as the gash in his arm mended. The fog in his head from hours of fighting started to lift.
Forcing himself back out into the rain, he did a quick survey of the storm. The waves were still whipped into a frenzy from the winds, but the boom of thunder sounded distant, and the flashes of lighting had moved down the coast. Any demons spawned that far south would have to be handled by some of the other Keepers. Maybe he wouldn’t have to make a last stand at his tower after all. At least not that night.
Gabe stepped over the carapace corpse of a half-man, half-crab demon. He’d deal with the bodies in the morning. What he needed was a good fire to beat away the chill in his bones and dry him out. Despite the storm moving on, the island still might flood, so sleep would have to wait a while. Besides, it was good practice to wait at least an hour after the last bolt of lightning just in case a particularly slow demon hadn’t reached his trap yet.
The house was little more than a box with a table and miniature kitchen on the left side, a small bedroom on the right, and a fireplace along the back wall the building shared with the tower. It didn’t take long to get a fire going, and he set his wet things on a rack nearby to dry as he gave his weapons a perfunctory cleaning. He’d be more thorough once he was certain his watch had ended for the night.
Wearing boxers and a fresh t-shirt, he sat at the table and flipped open his laptop. The satellite hookup for internet took a little time, so he radioed in to the park office.
“Willamook reporting in.”
“This is headquarters. You’re clear to talk, over.”
He squeezed the trigger on the hand-held microphone. “The storm’s moved on south. No escapes to report.”
There was a hesitation on the other end. “Keep watch until you get the clear, copy?”
“Copy. Did some get through the perimeter guards?”
“That’s a negative, but Meceta Head’s not responding. I’ve sent a car out to investigate, over.”
Old Mr. Lorek had probably fallen asleep again. The retirement party they’d thrown him should have been enough of a clue that his watch was over. Still, as useless as the old man was, he’d done something Gabe’s own parents hadn’t had the courage or decency to do: he kept Rebekah from knowing the awful truth. Kept her from living a life about death. Unfortunately, that meant that Gabe himself became unwelcome after a while. He winced. “Want me to head up to shore?”
Please say no.
Another delay. “Negative. We’ll handle it from here.” Static surged through the connection. “And Gabe?”
“Dinner soon—when the weather breaks? Your father and I miss you.”
He’d rather shove a fork into his eye than have dinner with his father and listen to another hour-long lecture about duty and the safety of the human race and why hadn’t Gabe returned his calls. Especially since it took about an hour to get to shore and dock, and another two of driving to reach the regional center. “Of course, Mom. Just say when. Willamook out.”
Standing to find a new pair of pants so he could return to his watch, Gabe froze as a cold chill started at the crown of his head and traveled the length of his body, igniting every nerve ending like Fourth of July fireworks. The sensation stole his breath, and without thinking, he turned back toward the table and grabbed the microphone again.
“Mom? Are you okay?” he asked, a lump in the back of his throat.
“Mom? Dad? Someone answer me, damn it!”
Gabe punched the table, bloodying his knuckles. Glad for the pain to replace the pit of dread churning in his gut. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t live through it again. Not this soon. Not when he’d finally been able to sleep through the night.
“Gabe?” Her voice was as frantic. “Gabe, answer me.”
“Mom. You’re alive.”
“Dad and I are fine. Are you okay? I mean…”
He didn’t let her finish. “Don’t worry about me. Who was it?”
Keepers linked by blood, no matter how old or tenuous the thread, felt that rush of cold when one of their own died. If it hadn’t been his parents, it was likely someone else he knew. Someone else’s parent or child or wife.
“Not sure. Everyone’s accounted for except Lorek and Moore. I hate to ask, but how soon can you get up there?”
“I’ll take the Jet Ski. I can be up there in forty-five minutes, and I’ll work my way inland from Cape Cove.”
“Okay. Be safe, son.”
The relief he felt that his parents were still alive was topped only by his guilt at hoping that someone else’s loved one had passed away. Moore had an alcoholic husband only good for slaying and two young children. They needed her. Lorek was old; his daughter, grown. Maybe he’d had a heart attack sitting in his tower watching television. There were worse ways for a Keeper to go.
He grabbed his water-tight pack and shoved his spare ranger’s uniform, gun, and an extra clip of ammo inside. Almost as an afterthought, he added his phone and wallet. His wetsuit hung behind the orange-flowered curtain that sectioned off part of his wall, and he put it on as he’d done hundreds of times before. It’d do the demons a disservice if he caught cold and died in his bed.
The Jet Ski had its own private dock off the side of the island, and he stepped over the bodies of a dozen different demons on his way to crank it down into the turbulent water. Rain pelted him, dripping down his face and into his eyes as the waves drenched his legs. So much for getting dry.
Once the Jet Ski was in the water, he climbed on and unhooked the rope securing it to the metal pier. Rough waters were his favorite, and he backed away from the island he called home and headed south along the Pacific toward Cape Creek. A built-in GPS system guided him down the coastline as he jumped the waves, crouching on his feet to keep his center of gravity lower to the water. Despite the exhaustion—the energy drinks and protein bars hadn’t done much to revive his strength—he grinned.
Sometimes when he went for long boat rides or took the Jet Ski out, he wondered just where the demon world was. Parallel dimensions and the multiverse were all well and good in the realms of theoretical physics or science fiction, but in the real world, few believed them possible. None but Keepers who spent their lives, quite literally, protecting mankind from the refuse that slipped between dimensions few believed existed. Some witches did, but covens varied widely. Every once in a while one of the Keepers had to venture inland and destroy whatever demon some naive coven had raised and then been unable to control. Even talking about demons or monsters or witches would earn him a one-way trip to the asylum if a normal person overheard. For them, it was well and good to watch television shows or movies that depicted the hidden reality of the world right under their noses—a world they refused to believe in. Gabe didn’t mind. It kept them out of his way.
That still didn’t solve his conundrum of where, exactly, demons came from. The collision of elemental forces, such as those created when severe storms did the impossible and momentarily united the realms of air, fire, water, and earth in a strike of lightning near the ocean’s shore, allowed the creatures to cross over from a place the lore only named the Red. But the door was one way. Demons could enter our world under precise conditions, and had been doing so as long as there’d been life here—hence their frequency in the world’s mythology and folktales—but a person could never survive a trip going the other way. At least, not a normal one.
Physicists claim that just as ours isn’t the only sun in existence, maybe our universe isn’t a singularity either. Could demons be what passed for conscious life in another universe, traveling across dimensions in a wormhole or other type of space rift? The thought was an intriguing one. Growing up, he’d always wanted to study physics at a university and find the answers for himself. Do research. However, that kind of life wasn’t in his destiny. Gabe had a duty, as his father liked to remind him, and tonight that duty was going to be more unpleasant than normal.
The headlights of his Jet Ski illuminated the entrance to the sandy cove created where Cape Creek emptied into the Pacific Ocean. A favorite of sea lions and whales in the right season, the cove was normally a pleasant place and a destination for tourists or guests staying at the bed-n-breakfast. The sandy beach was the size of two football fields and lined on the north and east sides with storm-battered pines. Trails led up into the trees and toward the keeper’s house that overlooked the cove. Lorek and his daughter lived there in the converted b-n-b. Just beyond that, the Meceta Head Light twirled golden and strong. No problem there—at least none he could see from a distance.
As he drove his Jet Ski up onto the beach, he noticed the bluish glow of halogen headlights stopped in the center of the elegant Cape Creek Bridge. Normally, a pair of headlights wouldn’t catch his eye, but if they belonged to Moore’s patrol car, he needed to know. She might be hurt. Or worse.
Gabe took some rope from the compartment beneath the Jet Ski’s seat and secured his ride to one of the nearby pine trees. The high tide had gone out already, but it still didn’t seem prudent to risk his only mode of transportation washing out to the ocean. That finished, he took another moment to change into his Park Services uniform. Only having a gun for defense left him feeling naked. He pulled back the slide to check that a round was loaded and let it snap back with a click. Might as well get this over with.
The trail leading away from the beach and up the cliff was deserted, the thunder a distant growl. No more demons should be spawned in this area, but that didn’t mean that one hadn’t sunk past Lorek. Crouching, Gabe inhaled slowly, letting his sharpened sense of smell take over. Pine. Salt. Brine. Mold. Animal droppings. Musk from a skunk. A hint of beer from discarded cans.
He jumped up and started running down the path toward the bridge.
The last scent had been faint but unmistakable.