by Dan Stout
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
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
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, and 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?" 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
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 that 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
"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
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 between the box and the
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
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
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
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
"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
Cynthia finally spoke. "I'd like to try a couple of things with this box. Any chance you
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
She looked up from the symbols. "Why? 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
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
"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
"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
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
"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 for 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 it 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
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
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
"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
"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 thumbs-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
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,
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
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
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
Egan's voice was 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.
The light brightened and stretched around him, past him. His oversized hat actually
moved backwards, as if the light carried weight. The light filled the hallway, continuing to
brighten, and the man began to tremble, his mouth gaping open. His elbows lifted, like he was
straining to pull his hands off the box, away from the runes that promised fire and blood as a
reward for selfish desire.
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
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
"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.