by C.S. Fuqua
C.S. Fuqua’s books include the upcoming collection Father’s Day ~ Poems of Parenthood from Stairwell Publishers, White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, The Swing ~ Poems of Fatherhood, Walking after Midnight ~ Collected Stories, Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and Native American Flute ~ A Comprehensive Guide ~ History & Craft, among others. His work has appeared in publications such as Year's Best Horror Stories XIX, XX and XXI, Pudding, Pearl, Chiron Review, Christian Science Monitor, Slipstream, The Old Farmer's Almanac, The Writer, and Honolulu Magazine. Please visit his websites at csfuqua.com and csfuqua.bandcamp.com.
A needle of light winks. Machinery rumbles, and he cowers against the dirt wall. Something brushes against his leg as a shadow scuttles into a corner. He kicks, and bone and flesh give way under his boot. He takes the rat into his hands and lifts the carcass to his lips, but then his shoulders sink. He drops his hands to his lap, weary of the struggle. The light winks again. The door rattles. This time he will make them shoot. Randy worked the screwdriver diligently between two bricks to flake out grout. He wiped sweat from his cheek with his shoulder as the screwdriver broke through. Daylight stabbed into the space beyond. A glint. A blink? He edged closer but saw nothing now, perhaps a trick of light. From what he could tell, several feet of space lay on the other side, apparently without access. Then the smell hit him. He jerked back, sickened by the sudden familiar, rancid stench emanating through the hole. His hands began to tremble, and the screwdriver slipped from his grasp, clinking to the cement floor. Randy had awakened two nights earlier to a faint, persistent scratching. He sat up, heart racing, confused, believing momentarily he was back in that hole. But light blazed around him, and his chest hitched with realization that the nightmare was only a nightmare, its darkness a bad memory. He lay back and pondered the silence of the house, the light, the patience of time, until his eyes closed, his breathing calmed, and he began to drift once again toward the hole in the desert. Scratching. He twisted up onto the bedside and cocked his head, listening. Muted, determined, real. He retrieved the pistol from the nightstand and eased down the hallway, room to room, quietly, until the sound drew him to the kitchen and its common wall with the utility room that was entered from the back patio. He pressed his ear to the wall, and the scratching stopped. Randy listened for a good minute or more, long enough to wonder again if he'd imagined it. He closed his eyes, and the darkness memory settled around him, forgotten by god and country, forever a prisoner. He rested the gun's barrel against his forehead, his finger taut on the trigger taut. Escape. Once and for all. A sad smile came to his lips. He sighed heavily, lowered the gun, and went back to bed. **** Randy had been in the house for about a month, but not until the day following the scratching did he notice the utility room's exterior appeared several feet longer than its interior. He tapped a hammer against the interior's end wall and thought he heard a rattle on the other side. Rattle or not, the wall shouldn't be there. The real estate agent had said the previous owners divorced shortly after the birth of their child nearly two years earlier, that neither had made payments on the house, leading to foreclosure. Saps down on their luck, thus an opportunity for Randy, but he didn't care. He hadn't wanted this or any house. That had been Claire, insisting a house would be the first step in reclaiming his life. Whatever. He didn't argue. In a house, at least, he wouldn't experience the random encounters with apartment complex tenants. The only time he'd have to see anyone would be to cash his VA check or buy groceries. So he let Claire take care of the details. Since then, his steps had worn a path in the carpet from the bedroom, down the hall, around the living room, and back, over and over. Randy pored through the sales and mortgage documents and found the names of the previous owners. Five minutes on the internet provided him with a telephone number. The line rang. A male voice answered. "May I speak to Jeremy please?" "Who's calling?" came the voice. "Randall Langford. I bought the house..." "You have the wrong number." The line disengaged. Randy redialed, but it rang unanswered. The following day, the number was no longer valid. **** Randy pried the screwdriver into the hole to break out more grout. A voice startled him, and he spun to find Claire in the doorway, chocolate brown hair brushing her shoulders, framing a faintly cherubic face, accented with deep, penetrating eyes, the only trait common to the sister and brother. Otherwise, Randy's lanky frame, his timid demeanor, and his sandy-colored hair made him appear like an uncomfortable acquaintance in her presence. Claire grinned. "Remodeling?" "Listen..." he said softly. Claire took a step in. "What am I lis...?" "Thereâ€¦!" He twisted halfway back to the wall. "Hear that?" Claire listened intently for several moments before pressing the back of her fingers gently against his forehead. "You don't feel feverish," she teased. Randy motioned toward the small hole. "Look through there." Claire frowned, obviously irritated, but she squinted an eye close to the hole as directed, peered in, and shrugged. "It's dark," she said, but then backed suddenly away, her face twisted in disgust. "It stinks." "Exactly. According to the floor plan, this wall doesn't exist, and something's causing that smell." He led her outside and showed her how the exterior wall extended several feet longer than the interior. "Another example of contractor expertise. Look, honey..." Claire flashed an impatient grin and kissed his cheek. "I just stopped by to check on you. I need to drop some supplies at church for Pastor Baggett. Wanna come?" "Old subject, Claire." "One day, I'm just going to bring the pastor here." Randy didn't bite. Claire sighed. "You want to go for dinner later?" He shrugged. Claire motioned toward the utility room. "If the wall bugs you so much, knock it down. And fumigate." **** A flash. The concussion hurls him several yards through the air. He hits, groans, faintly aware of screams within the roar. He gropes to see if his legs are still there. He rolls and pushes himself up with quavering arms. Two gun-toting figures emerge from the roiling dust, their heads and half their faces hidden by traditional cover. Randy moans as hands grasp him under the arms and yank him up. They throw him into the back of a sedan. He tries to push himself up, but a rifle butt puts him back down. Randy raised his face to the sky, eyes closed, the sun's heat warm and clean. Claire had made him feel silly enough to give it up the day before, but then came the night and more scratching. He'd entered the room around 2 a.m. and pressed his ear to the hole. Something metallic clicked within, and he felt a faint breath of air. He'd backed out of the room and returned to his bed where he lay awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, the gun nestled on his chest, the barrel nuzzled under his chin. The scratching proved intermittent, but determined. With his face flushed by the sun's warmth, Randy entered the utility room, determined to lay the mystery to rest. He placed the pistol on the floor near the side wall. He retrieved the hammer and screwdriver and chipped the grout from around two bricks where he'd worked the day before. Minutes later, he pushed the bricks through to the other side. They crashed to the concrete floor beyond, and vague light seeped into the space. Something hissed, and the sudden rush of stench brought bile to Randy's throat. Randy got a flashlight from the kitchen, switched it on, and slipped its shaft in through the hole. As he'd guessed, the space beyond the wall extended a good four feet. The light winks. A voice on the other side calls, "Anyone in there?" Tears threaten. Dust swirls like a million mini-snowflakes in the shaft of dazzling light. Another voice calls in English. "In here," he rasps. The trapdoor rises, and two men glare down at him, their faces betraying disgust. He follows their gaze to his bloodstained hands, the filth that covers him, the dead rat. His fingers touch his face, the thick beard, the sallow eyes, the sunken cheeks. He looks up at them and reaches out with quivering hands. "Shoot me." Movement. Randy retrieved the pistol and shifted the flashlight. Dust flecks danced in the beam as it settled on a chest-high metal cage, about two feet wide, five feet long, nearly the width of the space, small mesh, strong and secure. But what took Randy's breath were the eyes that reflected dully in the beam, set in a wretchedly malformed face that pleaded as much as it mocked and seethed. "Pretty?" a voice hissed from within the twisted mass. Randy directed the flashlight's beam up and down a desperate creature that should not have been alive. Its bloodshot eyes stared from within a distorted deformity of human and goat features, a face gnarled in agony. Two short, foul horns grew from the forehead, one splintered two inches above the eye. The creature's shoulders and arms were little more than skin-wrapped bone, each rib stretching the flesh to near splitting. Sores, oozing black and viscous, covered its emaciated body, and bone protruded through the tips of each finger, the skin peeling away. The thing's mouth opened, revealing blackened remnants of teeth barely set in gray, rotting gums, and it emitted a despairing, chilling howl. Its howl languished to silence, and it drew a ragged breath, the skin across its chest sinking between the ribs. The creature lowered its head. It stretched out a beckoning hand only to yank back and turn away, head bowed, breaths rattling and shallow. The soldier yells to someone behind him as he kneels beside the opening. "Bring some water!" He stares down at the pathetic figure in the hole. "Jesus," he mutters, "how long you been here?" Randy blinks back tears that form against the brightness of the day. Gunfire chatters in the distance. Another soldier arrives with a canteen and passes it down to Randy. Water splashes against his cracked lips, and it burns, but the taste is so sweet, so wonderful. "Can you eat?" Randy's stomach growls viciously. Randy rushed into the house, unable to comprehend how the thing-whatever it was-could still be alive. He considered opening the hole further to bring out the creature, but not yet, he decided, not until he knew more about it. He contemplated the revolver, deciding it wasn't necessary with the creature secure in the cage. He retrieved a bottle of water from the refrigerator and rummaged through drawers and cabinets until he located a pair of long barbecue tongs, another object Claire had insisted necessary. For once, she's right. Back in the utility room, he used the tongs to ease the water bottle through the hole toward the cage where the thing waited. The creature's cynical, weary gaze narrowed and shifted to Randy, then back to the bottle. Tentatively, it reached but abruptly stopped and looked up at Randy as though expecting the man to snatch the bottle back. Finally, it wrapped its spindly fingers around the bottle. When the tongs released their grip, the creature blenched, startled, and dropped the bottle to cower back. Randy pulled the tongs back through the hole and directed the flashlight beam across the floor until it found the bottle. The thing whimpered and lowered itself awkwardly to the cage floor, stretching to reach the bottle, fingers desperately grasping air. Randy shifted the beam to the creature, saw the ragged genitalia that defined it as male. He swung the light back. The creature's fingers touched the bottle's side, nudging it further away. He mewled softly, managed to stretch enough to nudge the bottle again, this time rolling it gingerly under his outstretched fingers. The creature grabbed it and pulled it into the cage, lifting himself with a groan to sit and twist off the cap. "There's more," Randy said softly. The creature hissed. He raised the bottle to his lips, drank, and immediately pulled the bottle away, breaking into a rasping cough. Water sloshed out, and the creature whimpered and sprawled on the cage floor to lick up the precious liquid its tongue could reach between the cage wire. Randy drank, but half or more of the water spilled from the sides of his mouth, his throat raw with each swallow. Such decadence, such bounty-water in a bottle. Will they believe how he's stayed alive, licking dewdrops seeping in around the door and hole where the rats enter, how he's drunk his own urine and the blood of the rats he's caught, killed, and eaten? Believe or not, they'll be repulsed. Of that, he is certain. The creature twisted up, peeled back his lips, and hissed again. Tattered ears hung loosely against his neck as he lifted the bottle and took measured, careful sips that grew progressively into hungry gulps. A drop dribbled out one side of his mouth. He puled, lowered the bottle, and, with a quavering finger, guided the drop from his cheek into his mouth. He then drank the bottle empty, sucking until the plastic collapsed. Reluctantly, he lowered the bottle until his arms hung at his sides, head bowed, body still except for his thin chest, rattling with each breath. The bottle slipped from his grip and bounced and rolled on the floor, coming to rest in shadow. "You need more," Randy said. The thing didn't reply, didn't move. Randy returned from the kitchen moments later with packages of bread and ham and another bottle of water that he slipped through the hole. The creature ripped the packages from the tongs and devoured the bread and meat. He licked his lips and stared up at the hole, his glare softening somewhat with curiosity. "Poison won't work," he rasped. "It isn't poison." Randy drew a measured breath. "What are you?" The thing cleared his throat. "Aidan," he said, and some pride came to his eyes. "I am Aidan. A Phooka." Aidan was obviously his name, but the word phooka meant nothing to Randy. The creature's head began to morph, the splintered horns retracting into the skull, large ears shrinking, face rounding, becoming more human. "What the hell...?" Bones cracked and reshaped until the creature appeared more like a badly battered child than a caged demon. "Phooka," the creature repeated. "As you are hu-" "Randy...?" Randy spun so fast, he nearly fell. "Jesus, Claire." "Randy," she scolded. "Not the lord's name..." "Then don't scare the hell out of me." Claire shrugged in that special way that said she'd forgive but not forget, despite her good book's instructions. She wore religion like a badge, slipping it conveniently off when it went against her desires. For Randy, though, she presented religion as the best way for him to find his way back into the real world. "God had a reason for putting you in that desert tomb. God has a plan for each of us." "And what would that plan be, Claire?" Randy asks. "To do his work." Two beats, and Randy begins laughing until Claire storms out in her typical huff. Claire raised up on tiptoe to peer over his shoulder. "What's with the hole?" "Checking the space," he said a little too quickly. Her face brightened. "So there is a space?" She tried to step past, but Randy didn't stand aside. "Let me see," she said. The situation suddenly felt more surreal than before, and something stirred inside Randy. He felt suddenly and inexplicably giddy with the possibility of challenging Claire's godly babble with something she couldn't explain away with a nod toward heaven. But would she see anything if he allowed her to look? Or have I lost my mind? Randy moved aside, and Claire stepped up to the hole. Both pressed close to peer in as Randy clicked on the flashlight and held it under their chins, directing the beam toward the cage. Claire's breath caught, and Randy felt odd relief at her confirmation the thing was real. The phooka bared its teeth, and Claire backed away. "What is it?" "He said-" "It can talk?" Aidan hissed, "She's burdened." Randy nearly laughed as Claire's eyes widened and she turned to flee. "Get rid of it, Randy," she yelled back to him. "Get rid of it." **** Randy spread peanut butter on two slices of bread and smoothed in dollops of cherry jam, placed the pieces together, and slipped the sandwich into a paper bag. Three days had passed since Claire had seen the creature. She hadn't called or been back since, nor had she answered her phone or responded to Randy's messages. "You said Claire's burdened," Randy had said to Aidan after Claire left. "What did you mean?" The creature offered only a sardonic grin. "You know she wants you dead." "You have a gun." Aidan held his gaze until Randy looked away. The soldiers lift him from the hole, and he sees two men, their heads covered in the traditional wrap, running away in the distance. Another soldier raises his weapon, aims. One runner sprawls, his limbs twisting under his body. A second shot echoes, and Randy feels satisfaction as the man who had killed the captor Ahmad Ali, the only one who'd offered help to Randy, falls dead. Randy took the sandwich to the utility room. He slipped it through the hole and tossed it to the floor toward the cage, close enough for the creature to reach. Aidan looked up questioningly at Randy. "Peanut butter and jam. Go ahead." Even after three days, the creature greeted Randy with suspicion at each feeding. Aidan reached tentatively for the bag, nose twitching with the odor. He pulled it into the cage and squatted, fingers carefully opening the top, hand sliding in to pull out the sandwich. He held it before him for several moments. His gaze turned to Randy. "Poison?" "We've been through this enough already." The creature chuckled and drew the sandwich to his mouth, took a bite, and chewed, slowly, deliberately, savoring. When he'd finished, he squatted in the cage and rubbed his palms over his small, distended belly. The creature's lips, healing rapidly, had more color now and curved into a mordant smile. Curiosity stirred in his eyes. "Will you shoot me? Keep me as a pet? Put back the bricks?" Ahmad Ali asks in a heavy accent, "Hungry?" What good is food? Randy wonders. "Hungry?" Ahmad asks again. "Yes." Ahmad leaves, bolting the trapdoor securely. He is gone for several minutes before returning with a bowl of bland bean soup. As Randy eats, Ahmad says, "It is necessary." Randy understands that Ahmad means imprisonment. Randy held Aidan's accusing glare for several long seconds before abruptly reaching for the hammer. He struck the bricks furiously, chipping out large chunks with each swing, working out and downward. A half-hour later, he'd enlarged the hole to a three-foot diameter. The stench nearly overwhelmed at first, dissipating slowly into a faint fetor. The creature's crooked fingers grasped the mesh in anticipation, breaths short and rapid. Randy noted the flesh on Aidan's hands was no longer gray and tender, healing at a remarkable rate, now covering the bones completely. Randy finally stopped swinging and stood at the opening, winded, arms aching. The space beyond filled with light, and Randy saw that the phooka stood perhaps forty inches tall, conforming to the cage's height. He felt a new rush of pity at the sight of the creature, even though Aidan had improved remarkably over the last few days. The phooka waited, patient in silence. "Who put you here?" Aidan said nothing. "Then tell me what the hell's a phooka?" The creature rasped a chuckle that broke in violent coughing. He held himself weakly up on hands and knees as the coughing subsided, head hung haggardly. "Demon, angel-depends on who's telling the story," the phooka wheezed. "Many of your kind believe we're good luck." He drew a deep breath. "A man called Old Bill trapped me long ago. Someone else wanted me and killed old Bill, but when that one unlocked my box, I was too quick." "The guy who lived here-did he kill Bill?" The phooka pushed himself into a sitting position and pulled his atrophied legs under one hip. "No." Randy swept his hands around. "Why here?" Aidan wheezed a laugh. "I took the baby." The phooka bowed his head. "To be taken by beings like me, to be honored, charmed..." "You took the baby?" "I brought it back." The phooka's eyes blinked, moist and red. "They trapped me. Your kind's so stupid and arrogant. They never fed me, never brought water, only walled me into this tomb. I've fed upon myself ever since..." The phooka raised his arms and howled, long and mournful. Finally, the voice faded to silence, his arms lowered, and he hung his head in dejection. "I starved for nourishment, for light, freedom..." He looked up, and a momentary spark of thanks shone in his eyes. Then it was gone, replaced by the same suspicion as before. Randy drew back the hammer and pounded the bricks until he'd enlarged the opening to the floor, tall and wide enough to bring out the cage. He squatted before the hole and watched the phooka creep over to the near end of the cage, bony fingers lacing through the mesh, gripping, new skin threatening to tear. "Move back," Randy said finally. The phooka's grasp loosened, and he backed to the opposite end. Randy decided on the garden hoe, hooked the blade into the cage's nearest corner, and pulled. He wondered how Claire would react to him bringing the demon into light by using the hoe she'd bought. Metal shrieked against the concrete floor. Finally with the cage in the main utility room, the phooka bowed his head and drew inward, crossing his arms over his chest and grasping his shoulders with tender fingers. Sores scarred the creature's body, but most had either healed or nearly healed. Randy circled the cage slowly, taking in the creature's wounds. "Jesus," he whispered. "Jesus," the sergeant whispers above. Randy feels shame. His hands shake uncontrollably, and he sees they're covered with open sores and scabs. Four hours later, Randy's in a hospital bed, asleep, face shaved, hands grabbing at the sound of rats skittering through his nightmare. "Your woman-" "Sister," Randy corrected. "She wouldn't like you using the lord's name in vain," Aidan sneered. Randy shrugged. He'd learned a lot in the desert about gods and what they did and didn't care about. Claire's god cared more about the use of its name than how the members of its flock treated one another. Her god's sheeple had only to ask forgiveness for this or that sin, and everything would be cool in heaven-like the cynical bumper sticker, "I'm not perfect, just forgiven." But Randy had met the real god in that desert hole, and it hadn't been some old fart answering the prayers of SUV-driving boneheads, text messaging down the highway of stupidity. God had introduced itself to be a man's ability to swallow raw rat meat and drink blood and piss to survive. God had been the sound of gunfire and splintering bone, your name on the lips of the person saving your ass. Randy went in to prepare more food for the creature. From the counter, he could see through the kitchen window into the utility room. The phooka sat with his face toward the door, eyes closed, scarred lips parted perhaps in a silent prayer to its own god. He wakes, squinting into a shaft of light as machinery rumbles in the distance. He hears voices. He's confused and frightened until he realizes he's in a bed surrounded by other beds. His heart calms as he lies back, shifting to bathe in that ray of early morning sun through the window-warm, soothing, and brilliant. He prays to the desert god for strength to make the light eternal. Randy used what was handy for sandwiches-cheese, bologna, lettuce, peanut butter, jam. He didn't think the creature would complain as long as it was food. The phooka proved him right as it guttled every morsel. When he finished, Aidan squatted on the cage floor and licked up crumbs. He drank his water thirstily, his stomach increasingly distending, asking for more after each bottle emptied. Randy slid all food and water across the floor to the cage, using the hoe from a safe distance just inside the doorway. The phooka sat with his short legs folded roughly and settled the water bottle against a thin thigh. Randy marveled at his recuperative ability-how his body was healing so rapidly and gaining weight at an incredible rate. No wonder, though, considering the quantity of food he was putting away. The improvement made Randy feel some pride and relief, the first genuine good feelings he'd experienced since the day he'd landed in that desert tomb. The phooka stared at Randy for a full minute with unblinking eyes that drilled deep into those of his keeper, but Randy felt no threat or danger. "Will you keep me or let me go?" Randy sat down in the doorway and leaned back against the frame. "Not yet." That's what the one with the black hood says. "When?" Randy asks. "In time..." "When...?" The question ends in an abrupt groan as a gun butt finds his kidney, and Randy accepts that he will not leave this place alive. He draws a breath, utters, "Idiot." The man spits on him and points his weapon at Randy's forehead. "Do it," Randy says calmly. "I'll give your virgins a test run." Ahmad Ali lays his hand on the weapon and shakes his head. The man with the gun glares at Ahmad and then swings around and fires. Ahmad Ali's face caves and the back of his skull erupts outward as his body falls beside the opening. The man yanks off his hood. "This is my country," he shouts at Randy. "You do not exist unless I say so." The trapdoor falls. Aidan's eyes gleamed with interest, replacing the dull, gray stare. "You'll keep me then?" "I didn't say that." "Nor did your captors say it to you." He grinned. "Rat's a delicacy, yes?" The words took Randy's breath. He started up, unsteady on his feet. His voice trembled: "How do you know anything about that?" Aidan's face grew serious. "Thoughts unguarded." He shrugged as if that explained everything. "Like the woman..." Randy took a step but stopped abruptly. Not too close. "What about her?" "The odor engulfed her." "What odor?" "You asked me before." "About saying she's burdened?" Aidan hissed and pressed his grinning face between the cage mesh. "She's pregnant." The declaration took Randy completely unprepared, and a slow smile came to his face. "Claire?" The smile melted. "What? You want it?" The phooka chuckled and sat back, shaking his head, gaze never straying from Randy's. "It interests me not. I find the situation amusing." The phooka lifted his nostrils and sniffed. "The smell precedes her." "She's coming?" Randy half-twisted to the doorway. The phooka's brow rose slightly. Randy stepped unsteadily out of the utility room and pulled the door closed, his last glance at the phooka's eyes noting the sadness and fear of one who's been alone too long. He released the knob as Claire rounded the corner. "You didn't answer the doorbell. I figured you'd be back here. Did you kill it?" Claire glared at him, waiting. Randy didn't reply. "Randy, why in heaven's name not?" "He's intelligent, not some rabid animal. You just can't go killing things." "It's not human, Randall. It's evil." "You don't have a clue." He realized the only way to prove the phooka's value was to demonstrate it. Randy reached for Claire's hand, leaned in, and kissed her cheek. "Give it a chance, Claire. It's special. I mean-this may sound strange-are you pregnant?" Claire went rigid, eyes wide with anger and fear. She yanked free and backed away. Randy held her gaze and waited. He'd learned a lot about waiting, about being quiet. His hands trembled slightly, and he concentrated on being still. A peal of laughter issued from within the utility room, and the color drained from Claire's face. She began to turn away, but Randy caught her arm. "Kill it, Randy," she growled. "Look into his eyes. He's not evil. He's the one who said you're pregnant. He knows by smell, Claire. By smell." "Let me go." Claire struggled against his grip. Randy released her, and she fled. Randy didn't bother calling Claire that night. It would've been useless, he figured, and, frankly, he was weary of her and her assumption of superiority. Perhaps this little predicament she now found herself in would bring her down to earth, would enable her to have a little empathy with others instead of trying to impose her own beliefs and goals on them. Perhaps. For now, though, her absence would allow him to give his attention completely to the phooka, beginning with a dinner of squash, potatoes, and an entire baked chicken. The phooka didn't speak while eating, nor did he acknowledge Randy who sat quietly in the doorway, watching. Aidan's ravenous hunger had sated somewhat, and he now ate more thoroughly, carefully. His pointed tongue snaked around bones to strip them clean of all meat before he cracked each to consume the marrow. He left nothing edible uneaten. Finally, Aidan pushed away the pan and began licking his fingers clean. He lay quietly down on his back. "Does the cage floor bother you?" "I'm accustomed." Randy rose and returned a few moments later with several towels which he tossed onto the cage top. The phooka pulled them in one by one to make a mat. He lay down once again, this time with a satisfied sigh. "Anything else?" Randy asked. The phooka grinned. "If you would be so kind as to open the cage door..." Randy smiled. "Sleep well." "Will you sleep in your cage tonight?" the phooka asked. Randy hesitated and then closed the door. **** Randy woke with a grunt, dragging himself into consciousness, slowly becoming aware of the banging. He rose and groggily pulled on jeans and a T-shirt before stumbling out toward the noise. He opened the front door to find Claire and a soft, puffy man with flushed cheeks standing behind her. "Good lord, Randy," she said, her eyes raking up and down him. She pushed in, and Randy stumbled back, allowing both Claire and the man entry. She spun to face him. "You locked the utility door." She started for the kitchen. "Where's the key?" she demanded, but she located it on the counter next to the refrigerator before he answered. She led the man out the backdoor onto the patio. Randy salvaged his senses finally when he spotted the bible in the older man's hand and followed them out the backdoor. He wedged himself between Claire and the utility room door just as she turned the lock. "Who's this guy?" he demanded. "Rusty Baggett," the man said. "Claire's pastor." He smiled reassuringly under intense, hungry eyes, and leaned forward, offering his hand in greeting, but Randy ignored him. "You brought a preacher?" "That thing, Randy. It's-" "It's none of his concern." Then, to the man: "You can go." "No!" Claire tried to push Randy to one side, but he refused to move. She straightened, indignant and determined. "Randy, I will not allow that thing-" "You don't have the option of allowing or denying anything." A coldness settled in her eyes, and she tucked her shoulder and rammed him off-balance. The preacher caught Randy's arm. "Please, please." Randy yanked free with such ferocity that the preacher grunted as he lost his grasp. Randy grabbed for Claire's hand, but the door swung open to reveal Aidan, crouching inside the cage, glaring up, tense and ready. Claire gasped at the thing's appearance, its head now fully formed into that of a goat, curved horns short and sharp, gaunt body quivering with energy. It wagged its tongue and hissed. "Dear God," the preacher whispered as he faltered closer. Randy reached for him, but the action brought the preacher back to the moment, the mission. Randy's air went out as the preacher shoved him hard against the utility room's exterior wall. Pastor Baggett raged through the open doorway, toward the cage, brandishing his bible like a weapon. "Demon of hell," the preacher growled, "prepare to be cast into the fiery pit forever and ever!" Aidan leaned slightly forward, ready, his eyes cold and black on the pudgy man. Randy forced past Claire and grabbed the preacher's shoulders from behind. The man dropped low and spun, bringing the thick bible up against Randy's face and ear, sending him crashing into tools hanging on the wall. A spade clattered to the floor, and other tools rattled on their pegs. The preacher tossed the bible down, grabbed the spade, and reeled toward cage. The phooka's hands lashed out through the bars, fingers latching around the preacher's ample calf, digging through the material in to soft flesh. The preacher shrieked as blood darkened his pant leg. He swung the spade down at the phooka's arms, but Aidan proved too fast, and the spade struck the cage door. The phooka toyed with the man, taunting him, slipping his hands out of the cage, only to pull back precisely as the preacher swung, the spade striking the door and lock repeatedly. The preacher drew back to swing again, the spade poised high, his eyes widening as the creature slipped gangly fingers around the lock and swung the door open with a screak. Aidan hissed, body shifting, growing, horns lengthening, straightening, sharpening, eyes fixed on the preacher. The preacher dropped the spade and scrambled back through the doorway, forgetting his bible and colliding with Claire who went down hard on her back. The preacher fled around the house for his car as the phooka bolted past Randy to straddle Claire's chest. He crouched low on the woman, his long, dark tongue snaking out to lick her trembling throat. "Get it off," she shrieked. Claire struck at the beast with both hands, but Aidan grabbed her forearms in his bony fingers and crossed her arms over her chest. He bent low again, lips brushing hers as she twisted her head from side to side. He sniffed, long and hard. "Randy...!" Claire cried. "Get off of her," Randy demanded, but he hesitated from action, suspecting the phooka would have already harmed his sister had that been his intention. Claire struggled, lifting the phooka up, but it dug its lanky fingers into her arms, and she whimpered, her struggle weakening. Aidan twisted his head around to face Randy with a sardonic grin. "She no longer bears." Claire's struggling ceased completely as the words' meaning grew clear and her eyes met Randy's. "Let her go," Randy said softly. Aidan hissed. "Let her go, Aidan." Randy saw compassion soften those demonic eyes, and Aidan's grip relaxed. The creature stepped off the woman. Claire scrambled to her feet. "If you won't kill it, I will." She started for the spade the pastor had dropped, but Randy seized her by the shoulders and forced her to face him. "What'd you do, Claire? What?" Her eyes shifted from Randy to the phooka, then back before she finally turned and ran. A car door slammed, an engine roared to life, and rubber squealed. Randy stood in silence, staring after her. Mucus rattled in the phooka's throat. He coughed and spat. The creature remained silent until, with a sigh, it returned inside the utility room. Randy heard the cage rattle as the door closed. Randy came into the room's doorway to find Aidan sitting in the middle of the cage, his back toward the door. Randy crossed and opened the cage door. "Get out." Aidan looked around. Randy smiled. "Out." The phooka left the cage slowly, tentatively. He crossed the room once again to step onto the patio. As Randy came out, the phooka's body began to lengthen, his skin changing and coating itself with feathers, his face and horns morphing into a small, sleek head and beak. Aidan's arms and hands grew and contorted until the phooka, as the huge eagle it had become, stretched his wings into a good six-foot span. The bird shook his body, ruffling feathers. It extended a wing toward Randy. Randy's heart pounded. What about Claire? he thought. "There will always be a Claire," Aidan whispered. "And a preacher. Always better, always judging." The phooka's eyes narrowed. "You escaped the desert. Let the demon go." Randy bowed his head for several long moments in consideration before finally drawing a deep breath. He glanced around slowly one last time and then mounted and straddled the great bird's back. The eagle's beak pointed skyward with Randy's gaze following, face warming in the sun. Aidan stretched his wings, a little shaky at first, but steadying as the pair began to rise.