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26. Become 

The third time Benjamin saw his mother she was lying amidst the stinking sheets of her deathbed. He’d been brought to the asylum by a member of what he’d come to think of as the Secret Society That Knows My Mother. At this visitation, he had just turned the troublesome age of fifteen, not all that different from the age of sixteen, or, for that matter, fourteen. His rebellious nature had honed itself somewhat; it was nearing the peak of its perfection. He had become the quiet seething boy that rode in the back of the school bus on those long morning and afternoon trips over the hill to Eureka Joint Union High School and back again. He’d become the boy who never spoke much, who embodied the old adage, actions speak louder than words. He’d become the boy who never, not once, got answers to the questions he rarely asked anymore concerning his mother and what had happened to her to twist her mind so. He’d become the boy who spent his school lunch periods standing outside the Humbolt County Infirmary for the Insane when he could manage to hitch a ride across town. He’d developed a relationship with a small band of hooligans, one of who happened to be a boy named Macey Walker. This young trouble-maker was just as disenchanted with the optimistic hints and clues of life’s asinine big questions (also known as “things adults say to make themselves feel better”) as Benjamin was, whose daily regiment consisted of Break Shit, Fuck Shit Up, and Don’t Give a Shit, as had Benjamin’s. Benjamin had also managed to wrangle himself a girlfriend somehow—damned if he’d ever be able to reason that one out—who just happened to be one of the notorious Brendas of Bingly, whom he figured he loved, or at least really liked, and years later (or rather, currently), after a fatal car crash and her subsequent death, he would realize just how in love with her he’d been. He had become a boy who never told those closest to him, Macey and Brenda, who his mother was, or where they kept her, or what state of mind she was in. He’d become a boy written up so many times in the county newspapers’ police report that all of Bingly had known his name, and he’d been infamous in a way, or he’d always liked to think they’d considered him as such. He’d become a boy who believed all who looked on him witnessed debacle incarnate, thought of himself in such low esteem that he deemed the effort of digging himself out not near worth the effort, besides the fact that he secretly enjoyed playing the part of town black sheep. He hadn’t become a monster hunter at this point. That pursuit would begin the day after he dropped in on his mother for the third time, which, back then, would have been tomorrow.

      On the day of the visit, during his fifteenth year, things changed. The wiles of fate intervened on what would have more than likely been a lifelong downward spiral.

      He’d been summoned, and promptly delivered, to the infirmary. The urgency and the hurried pace of this meeting had upset him, he having become, beside all attributes listed above, a boy of leisure. The current foster parent, whatever their name might have been, had roused him after he’d spent the entire night getting thoroughly drunk, which, over the last year or so, had become part of his regimen as well as the other assignments listed above. He’d been told he was going to see his mother. It’d been early in the morning, and he’d been hungover, so, of course, while he’d hurriedly gotten dressed, he’d slipped the handgun from his bottom dresser drawer into his waistband and covered it with his shirt. One could never be too careful. Especially when one was hungover.

      The hour-long ride to the asylum made him even more sick, so he wasn’t in the best of moods when he arrived. He was shown into a small room with a wide and tall glass window that looked in on a larger room with many cots lined up. One of these beds supported his mother, who looked inches away from death’s door. After some mumbled conversation, of which Benjamin chose to stay out of, concerning the dire condition his mother was in, he stood up, escorted the current foster parent to the small room’s door, assured the parent he was only after privacy, shut the door, turned, and pulled out the handgun. Apparently, fifteen-year-old boys with hangovers hadn’t been high on the list of the infirmary’s security risks. It was just Benjamin and the doctor in the closed room at that point. It was the same doctor, slightly pudgier, who had mishandled Benjamin’s mother four years prior.

      Benjamin told the doctor to forget about leaving the room unharmed, that what transpired next would determine whether the doctor received a bullet in the crotch or the head. Then he asked the doctor if he understood everything he’d said. The doctor told Benjamin he understood, which Benjamin found odd. He’d expected shouts and squirms and pleadings for mercy. But Benjamin wasn’t feeling well and had some questions he wanted answers to, so he let the strange reaction to his threats ride without further fuss. He shoved a chair back up under the door handle, securing it somewhat. During the next twenty-some minutes, Benjamin finally got some answers to those questions that had been building up in his head. Not all the answers, but a fair amount.

      He learned his mother’s name was Jessica Samuel Weller, or at least that was the information they’d been given. They had no prior information on her from the time they’d been called in to pick her up in Bingly. As far as they knew, she was a vagrant, a nobody, a woman of zero means, insane and babbling about monsters, and, to no one’s surprise at the infirmary, she’d been pregnant. “Happens all the time,” the doctor said. “Either they’re taken advantage of because of their mind state, or their mind state is a result of being repeatedly taken advantage of.” At this, Benjamin wished he’d had time to put bullets in his gun, as he was oh so tempted to shoot the doctor in the crotch, one quick pop of vengeance.

      Benjamin found out he’d been birthed in the asylum, and then fed into the somewhat gentle folds of the administration that took care of unwanted children. There’d been one stipulation attached to baby Benjamin—the first data typed on his records sheet, even before the first medical notes, was that when the time came for adoption or fostering, he was to be sent back to Bingly. It’d all been prearranged, bribes and expenses had been meted out, and volunteers had been waiting by the time baby Benjamin arrived. When Benjamin asked how this directive could have come about, the doctor blanched, coughed, and turned away. After a few moments of silence, during which Benjamin had stared at his dying mother through the wire-meshed glass, the doctor admitted to tagging the directive onto Benjamin’s records himself. He’d been visited by the queerest little girl, dressed in finery—and as he described her, his words had been breathy and his eyes had taken on a faraway look, as when one recalls and revisits the nightmarish side of dream—and she’d ordered him to addendum the directive. Her talents of persuasion had been dumbfounding, the doctor told Benjamin. And, oddly enough, she’d come with satchels of cash. After arranging things with the doctor, the little girl had waltzed into Benjamin’s mother’s room and greeted her familiarly, calling her Jessica; Benjamin’s mother, to the doctor’s surprise, knew the little girl perfectly well, despite her ragged appearance, and called her “my best little girl.” The doctor recalled the endearment vividly, as Jessica had repeated it over and over, overjoyed at the sight of the small child. After their meeting, the little girl informed the doctor that they’d decided on the baby’s name, and she had him write it down, telling him that the August part was her idea.

      The doctor, greatly affected by his retelling of this encounter with Best, told Benjamin how she had ridden into town on a giant horse. By the time Benjamin pulled the chair away from the door, he and the doctor had come to an agreement. No one would find out about the handgun or the rape. And then Benjamin went in to visit his mother.

      The terminal complications had to do with his mother’s insides, natural causes, failing organs. The morphine they had pumped into her had transported her back to an earlier time in her life, and during her last breaths, she talked to people that hadn’t been present. She asked to be put back in the tree; in her frail, dying tone, she commanded it. She said, “She doesn’t want to belong to anybody.” At the end, Benjamin took her sweaty hand in his and looked into her flickering, half-lidded eyes, her somewhere else eyes, and wondered what she’d lived through that had twisted her mind to such a degree. She opened her eyes fully then, stared at him for a few seconds, and asked, having swum up from her delirium, if he knew how special he was. “Best still visits me,” she told him, which he didn’t understand, thinking her sunk in the sea of morphine dripping into her arm and filling her up. “She tells me you’re an angry boy.” She nodded her head, patted his hand, and said, “Maybe you could use that anger to free the tree.”

      That being her last breath, Benjamin left the infirmary, sadness threatening to break his knees, sadness wanting to crush his body to the ground and cover him like a death shroud. He didn’t understood any of what had happened, not the bulk of the crazed answers the doctor had offered up, not the insane prattling of his mother. He wanted to understand, wanted to keep hold of his dead mother’s hand, but they pulled him away and ushered him outside.

      As they walked from the infirmary, the doctor informed Benjamin that there would be no services, that besides Benjamin, the only other visitor his mother received over the years had been the little girl, and so he said, “This is done. It’s over. If you could please tell your nightmare of a sister not to come visit anymore, it would be greatly appreciated.” Benjamin had understood that last request of the doctor’s no more than he’d understood any of it. He didn’t have a sister, didn’t have a mother anymore, either. He had nobody, nothing.

      The next day, after little sleep and much alone time, he looked into the odd stories he’d stumbled upon, as all who lived in Bingly had stumbled upon at some point in their lives. He set his comic books aside. He became fascinated with anything having to do with real monsters: eyewitness accounts of bestial sightings, local lore, articles written up in a stash of old county newspapers he’d found in one of the storage closets. He’d come across these accounts when checking to see how many times he’d been written up in the police report, and the monster-sighting articles just happened to be printed on the same page. In most cases it was pretty much the same column, the same article, the police report. He’d pulled out an old unused notebook—all his notebooks had been unused up to that point—and copied down a newsprint snippet that had caught his eye: 

      Wild black stallion spotted on Rill Creek Bridge, less threatening

    than last sighting, still considered dangerous. The rider, accord-

    ing to witness Netty Bildergrase, was the small girl with pigtails.

    No change in girl’s condition. She is also considered dangerous. If

    seen, do not approach. Any further sightings of this sort should be immediately reported to the county sheriff’s office. 

He’d spent the entirety of that day filling his notebook with similar accounts while thumbing through the old newspapers. He’d found something to work with. Something to help him understand. And, to boot, he’d decided to call himself a monster hunter.

      Currently, in the underground chamber, he felt less a monster hunter than he did a retirement home orderly stationed in the terminal wing on a bad day. He was screaming at the old woman, “Climb up the damn roots!” and for some unfathomable reason, she was refusing to budge from the throne, knifing Benjamin’s nerves to no end.

      The chamber was rocking with quake. A thick dirt cloud roiled in the confines of the underground room. The dirt was trapped and it wanted out. William was beside Hobbs, his staff in the crook of his arm, his hands on the old woman, trying to pull her up from her seated position.

      Hobbs shouted at Benjamin, “I have just experienced torture the likes of which you’ll never imagine! I experienced this torture up in those roots, Benjamin. Understand, I’m a bit reluctant—”

      “Climb!” he screamed, cracks widening under his boots.

      William had her in his arms, and he stepped up onto the stone throne’s seat, nearly losing his balance as great slabs of earth shifted below. He raised Hobbs up, but she refused to grab hold of the roots.

      “Star,” he said. “Please. Just eat a slice of humble pie and do as the boy says.”

      She reluctantly grabbed hold, looking down on William’s dirt-dusted, whiskery face, hurriedly telling him, “Tell him I’ll have to refocus. He can’t possibly expect me to use my own strength to climb into this rat’s nest.” At the mention of rats, her eyes took on a wild look. “Tell him, William.”

      The wavering spell surrounding the throne flickered, the blue flames along the dirt floor popping, turning white, with intermittent sparkles as if iron shavings had been thrown here and there...and then the spell fizzled out and was gone.

      “She’s going to have to bring down the protective magicks, Benjamin,” William shouted, pushing at Hobbs’s feet, getting her up inside the macramé weave of the tree roots.

      Around Benjamin, the chamber was a mixing bowl of activity. The daughters seemed as trapped as Benjamin and his two companions, and they were circling the throne at great speeds, searching for tunnels bored in the dirt wall, escape routes that hadn’t collapsed yet. Their long, boneless limbs were flailing about, whirling like detritus caught in the sway of a tornado. Didn’t look to Benjamin as if any of the monsters had noticed that the spell had faded away, that the dinner bell had rung.

      “Jeez,” he hissed. “Would’ve been nice to know we were powering down prior to fucking now. A few seconds to prepare, man.”

      Minutes ago, after Benjamin had informed Hobbs of his ancestry, he’d refused to say more, although Hobbs had demanded he expound on the subject. He was done talking. He’d sorted through the dead vines on the ground, picked through the assorted refuse of split daughter bodies and entrails and bloody wads of mud and this and that, and finally he’d come up with the shotgun where the dead caretaker had dropped it. He fished what shells he had left in his pants pocket, four bright red, stubby plastic things. He loaded the gun and moved toward the stairway entrance, leaving the comforting hum of the blue protective spell, batting the furiously rampant vine storm out of his way as he advanced, trying to come up with a way to get Hobbs and William out of that spell and up into the stairwell without them getting hole-punched to death by the whirling dervish daughters. A mad dash, he figured. He had to place his footsteps carefully. The floor of the chamber had become a grid work of widening cracks, with dank odors rising from those depths. Then some support up inside the dark stairway had snapped, and a great pounding weight flushed dirt from the entrance. Benjamin launched himself backward to avoid the chunks of sharp stone and railroad spike splinters that had shot from the stairway.

      He stumbled back to the insides of the spell dome and found he had no plan B to fall back on now that the stairway had collapsed. So he lifted his head, and knowing it was ludicrous, a terrific waste of time, he demanded that Hobbs climb up into the tree roots that hung from the ceiling. And it looked like she’d finally found purchase up in the roots, with the help of William, who was now standing on the throne’s seat, gesturing hurriedly for Benjamin to climb up beside him.

      The vine daughters were carrouseling around them in high gear, crowding in on the throne, threatening to suffocate them or cudgel them to pulp. Benjamin could see that a few of the daughters had pushed their faces in past the whirling limbs, looking in at him and William with their glowing grapefruit eyes, their mouths agape with the realization that the protective barrier was down, that they could attack those who’d murdered their mother. An ear-popping wail began to leak from the rotten-toothed mouths of the observant daughters, rising in pitch and intensity, some sort of signal to the others.

      Benjamin knew he was somewhat safe from the daughters’ attack, but the old drunk certainly was not. He leapt up onto the throne beside William. “Get up in those roots!” he shouted over the storm rioting in the chamber. “Yesterday, Willy! Yesterday!”

      “You first,” William said, a ringing of metal as he flashed his sword from its sheath. Calloused vine tips were swinging in toward them, a few rearing back to stab at the flesh sacks centered tantalizingly amidst them.

      There was too much noise, too much dirt blasting into him, for Benjamin to argue with William. He figured the sooner he got himself up in the roots, the sooner William would follow. He slung the shotgun over his shoulder and reached up to grab two fistfuls of pale roots, little doubt in his head that they would snap with his weight. With a boot up on the high back of the throne, he heaved himself up into the damp web of roots, reaching up further and grabbing thicker handholds, dirt raining in his eyes as he stained to find a crawlway leading up. He could feel William moving about below, bumping into his boots. He glanced down past his suspended, flailing feet and saw William standing atop the throne seat, his sword flashing as he swung it in precise arcs, pruning vine tips as they dove in at him from all sides.

      Above Benjamin, Hobbs could barely be heard working her way up into the roots, a grunt here, a snap there, and then she stopped moving. Benjamin could see a hint of her shoes, could see one blue-jeaned flank, and then he caught sight of the icy blue glint of one eye peeking down from her perch, finding and focusing on him through the nearly solid bramble of tree root. Benjamin knew she was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear her. The rumble of the sliding earth drowned her out, as did the screams of the daughters and the slithering of their limbs and the whooshing of William’s busy blade.

      He was guessing Hobbs had reached an impasse. The roots up to a point had been shaken free of dirt, allowing a pocket of climbing space, a loosely wrapped ball of string for Hobbs and Benjamin to force their bodies up into. Visibility had clouded over with the raining dirt from above and the swirling storm pushing up from below. He could just see hints of Hobbs perched five feet above his reach, and he heard snippets of what she was trying to shout down at him, something about “solid roots” and “no further” and “help William.”

      Benjamin pulled his boots up into the tangle, wedged them into knots of entwined tendrils, and got his body somewhat horizontal, one hand stretched and grasping the netting of root above. With the other hand, he reached down into the chamber.

      “Willy!” he yelled. He could see more curling tentacles now. They’d cocooned the old man, his whistling blade making a slashing appearance now and then. “William!”

      The vines withdrew, leaving a startled William a-twirl on the throne’s seat, sweeping his sword in a wide arch, narrowly missing Benjamin’s outstretched hand, and he nearly lost his balance, nearly toppled from the throne.

      “Willy! Grab my hand!”

      The daughters were furiously burrowing into the dirt wall to the sides of the collapsed stairwell, stumbling over themselves to get their steely vine tips churning at a patch of dirt, trying to dig their way out of the collapsing chamber. The backwash from their burrowing efforts hit William with force, and he grabbed the back of the throne to keep himself upright. The daughters were fast diggers, Benjamin noted. They’d burrowed a ways into the wall, and were now pulling their bodies in, their webbed feet flapping at the loose dirt amassed along the floor of the individual tunnels, hitting William with a brutish wave of dirt and worms and bugs. Within seconds, their trailing vines were pulled in after them, like so many puckered lips sucking in red, slick remnants of a mouthful of spaghetti noodles.

      The rumbling stopped.

      “I guess they know when they’re beat,” William said, sheathing his gore-dripping sword.

      A creaking, as of a giant rusty-hinged door inching open, filled the chamber. William looked around him uneasily. With a mighty crack, the throne dropped a foot. William raised his bushy face to Benjamin.

      “Get out of the way,” he said. “Think it’s best I climb up now.”

      Benjamin climbed farther up into the clog of roots, not sure why William would deem it time to climb up out of the chamber. All the monsters had left, and it seemed to Benjamin they might want to climb down instead of up. They might be able to follow one of the freshly dug tunnels up to the surface. He glanced down at William, opening his mouth to offer up this suggestion, and a gust like a bellows full of hot air shot dirt up into his eyes and mouth, stinging his exposed skin. He screamed at this sudden, violent event, and he scrambled, trying to get away from the dirt blast. He was blind with the dirt in his eyes and deaf with the roar that rose up from below.

      He allowed the storm to do its thing for a few moments. Not much he could do about it. Creatures That Inhabit Dark Places began nudging up close to him, demanding some elbow room in the knot of root. It became hot and rather stinky. Finally, the roar of storm died down a bit, and Benjamin felt he might be able to open his eyes now that his tears had washed some of the dirt away.

      Wiping mud from the rims of his eyes, Benjamin looked below him. He tried to focus on the throne, focus on William, looking for the dirt floor of the chamber, the walls, and saw it was all gone, replaced by a swirling mix of soil and emptiness, brown and red and black...a witch’s cauldron.

      “Willy?” he said.

      Beside his boots, he felt a tugging at the root system, heard William taking big breaths, fumbling to keep his grip on the armload of roots he’d managed to anchor himself to as the throne had fallen out from under him.

      “Lost my stick again,” William said between lung pulls. “Damn it to hell.”

      Benjamin could see him through the draping roots. William’s lips were pulled back and his teeth were clenched. He was hauling his worn and ragged body up into the network, level with Benjamin now, hooking his arms around knotted strands, hanging there, resting. Looking beneath William, Benjamin saw the swirling dirt dissipate, drawing away from the roots, their blue glow nearly dead, and what glow was left in them was reflecting off nothing below, a deep dark pit stinking of sour rot.

      Benjamin pulled himself farther up into the roots, up away from the chasm below him. The roots’ individual pliancy lessened as he inched upward. Their pale blue rubbery tips gave way to thicker cords, and these gave way to roots the thickness of his forearm. Forcing his hand up into these and finding a handhold was no problem, but he’d reached a point where he couldn’t pull his body up any higher; it was too crowded with stiff, fat roots. The roots were of little use as a light source; only a few of them emitted enough of a bluish glow to distinguish themselves, and the rest of them were dirt-caked.

      He’d wedged himself up as far as he could get, so desperate he’d been to put distance between himself and the dark yawning hole beneath him. He was stuck. And, what’s more, he couldn’t see a damn thing. Didn’t know where Hobbs had climbed. Couldn’t see William. There was no glowing root near his head to comfort him. He thought he could make out hints of a shimmering beacon beside his boot, but he couldn’t turn his head toward it fully. He’d somehow managed to wedge his chin up between two roots, jammed it up there good.

      His eyes twisted in their sockets, and he saw what had to be William’s hand. It was about level with Benjamin’s knee, gripping a few root strands just off to his left. One of the roots William had in his grasp had a bit of a glow to it.

      “Willy,” Benjamin said, working at keeping himself calm. The sensation of paralysis amongst all these roots, and the darkness surrounding him, and knowing he was suspended over what was certainly a long drop were intoxicating him...a phobia cocktail. “Hey, Willy!”

      “I hear you,” William said. Within the knot of roots, they could speak calmly, their voices reverberating along the fibrous sinews. “No need to shout, Benjamin.”

      “Can you see Mrs. Hobbs?”

      “I can’t move,” William said. “Give an old man a hand?”

      “I’m stuck, too.”

      Benjamin tried to pull back his arm, wanted to get his fingers on the roots restricting his head, pry them apart. Maybe then he’d be able to look around, which would be a great relief. He couldn’t budge his arm. It too was wedged tight, too.

      “Hobbs,” Benjamin said. The silence inside the root system was complete. He’d never heard the likes of it before. Felt like he was packed up inside a shipping box, Styrofoam peanuts pushing in at him from every angle. He called to Hobbs again, louder this time.

      “I’m not deaf,” came the response from above. “Don’t have to scream.”

      “Hobbs. You can do something?” Benjamin wasn’t too hopeful, just adverse to the gloomy silence surrounding him whenever no one was talking. “A magic spell?”

      Silence.

      “Hobbs.” Panic was closing in. He felt as he’d felt in that black underground tunnel with Turnkey earlier. He felt directionless. Up? Down? Who knew? He focused on breathing slowly, the fetid stink wafting up from below, or maybe above, tanging at the back of his dry throat and working to sober his panic.

      “I can’t do anything,” Hobbs said. He was somewhat sure she was situated above him.

      Benjamin swore the roots were moving in on him. He could not have shoved his body up into them this snuggly. Every inch of him was pressed in by the roots, and the pressure seemed to be increasing. Could be phobia talking, he told himself, but it felt like maybe he was about to be crushed by some old dead tree roots. Zombie tree roots, he supposed.

      “Coaxing spell,” came from below...or what he guessed was below.

      Benjamin felt a cramp beginning in his left calf. That, he told himself, simply could not happen. If his leg cramped, he’d freak out with the pain, and he’d rip something open against the coarse upper roots, and more than likely, bleed to death. He forced the toes in his left boot up as far as he could get them. Relax, he repeated to himself.

      “Too weak,” from above.

      Something wet slapped up against his cheek. It wiggled past, slurping through the cloistering bramble. Benjamin felt dampness on his face, wet ooze dispensed by whatever had slapped up against him.

      He hated what lurked in the dark. Hated what his mind made of these lurkers, these Dwellers of Darkness. It could have been anything, a harmless thing. Could have been an eel that’d lost its way, separated from its cousins. Or maybe it’d been a slug, a real nimble slug. Could have been William’s foot, all torn up and slick with blood. But William was below him, or above him, wasn’t he? Benjamin had a feeling that whatever had slapped him in the face was not something harmless. That was just not how his day was going.

      “Willy,” Benjamin said. “I think somebody’s in here with us.”

      Dirt and rocks started shifting around Benjamin. He could hear the hiss of the dirt as it cascaded down the sides of the shaft situated below him, which oddly enough seemed to have moved. Something was definitely happening. The shaft below was shifting to his side, and just maybe up was becoming down. The pressure of the restricting roots increased, digging into his skin, near to puncturing. He felt the slimy flesh of the root dweller slide across his stomach. His T-shirt had been lifted by the vising roots, and his stomach was exposed.

      It dawned on him that this new creature had touched him, was touching him, and no blue sparks had resulted. Whatever was in the roots with them hadn’t eaten bad fruit. Benjamin figured this meant two things. This new creature might not be as evil and hell-bent on murder as all the other monsters he’d came across over the last twenty-four hours. But it also meant, regardless of its affiliation, if it wanted to, it could rip into him and gut him and kill him without any adverse effects to its flesh, no defensive electrical spritzing off its prey.

      “Something in here,” Benjamin yelled, not just out of girlie panic, but also as a warning to the other two. “I’m not joking, you guys.”

      The roots were squeezing him too tightly. It was getting hard for him to pull in air, sour and dank as that air was. He felt something splat against the bare underside of his forearm and adhere there, a suctioning sensation on his skin. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell the others he’d been attacked, if attacked he’d been. No sound from Hobbs. William was moaning a bit; no doubt the roots were squeezing him as well. Or maybe a giant slug was working on swallowing the drunk whole.

      Golden light leaked in through widening cracks, blinding Benjamin momentarily. He closed his eyes and managed to pull in a breath. A draught of fresh, aboveground air rushed into his lungs. The roots nearly sprang free of him, releasing their death grip, and he scrambled to keep some of the roots in his grasp, yelling, “Hang on!” The golden cracks had opened up, huge chunks of earth falling away to reveal the low sun burning harshly in the clear sky of Outside. A great roar rose up all around him. Down was becoming up.

      He had an idea what might be happening. The tree had been leaning slowly, craving to lay its length upon the ground, its dead weight a slave to gravity. A major amount of earth had vacated the hilltop on which Scalabrini Hall was perched, and as Benjamin had witnessed beneath him as he’d clung to the roots above the tumbling throne, the huge tooth of land, rotted and filled with cavities, had practically hollowed itself out, leaving the tree with very little support. And so the tree had succumbed to nature’s laws. It’d begun to fall. Luckily, for Benjamin and friends, the tree had directed its fall away from the drop-off created after the entire west half of the giant main house and the earth it’d been resting on had broken off and slid down into the valley far, far below. If the tree had fallen the other way, they’d all be riding the heated July air currents to Splatsville, where bones get crushed, organs burst, and dreams die.

      Like a rickety elevator, jerking upward, the mass of under-root rose, breaking through the topsoil, as the tree’s length levered toward restful earth.

      Benjamin felt the suctioning pop of release as the monster that had gripped his forearm tore itself free and scrambled into the dense core of dirt and root at the base of the fulcruming tree. He’d caught sight of it, a snapshot, his eyes pained by the brightness of day and shuttering shut, and it’d looked part leech, part man, porous like a sea sponge in spots, taut pale skin in other spots. Benjamin glimpsed its face in a flash as it turned to glance at him: an old man’s face, a flattened worm’s head, jumbled, whiskered, a rounded mouth affixed in an O, a sucker mouth, bushy eyebrows, confused eyes, incriminating eyes. It had geysered a plume of vomit at Benjamin before turning and working its way into the jumbled mess of roots, its body doing things it shouldn’t. In its hand—or perhaps it’d been its foot; Benjamin wasn’t sure, his glimpse of the monster having been mercifully quick—it had carried a long-handled axe, glinting under the sun’s blast as if freshly sharpened.

      Nearly a third of the root mass had ascended aboveground. It had pushed the blood-saturated soil up out of its way as it slowly lifted. The levering action had stopped. The massive trunk of the tree was not lying flat, however, as was its obvious intent, but slanted upward at a forty-five or so degree angle. Benjamin was half in, half out of the dirt, clinging to the knotted undergrowth, staring dumbly at the spot in the roots where the axe-wielding monster had vanished.

      Lumberjack, he told himself. That was one of those lumberjacks who’d set up camp here so long ago.

      He gave his head a shake, clearing the creepy-crawlies, and turned to look at the low afternoon sun. To the west he saw a broad landscape, rolling hills of green, blue sky. He saw freedom from the darkness and the stink. All he had to do was crawl from the roots and get his boots on the dirt, situate himself on that narrow belt of vista resting between the roots and the cliff line.

      The ground was rippling oddly, and Benjamin saw that the cliff line, where recently the west half of the main house had been, was breaking off, crumbling away, inching closer to the roots of the tree. The west end of the atrium had collapsed, glass shards littering the mud, so he had an unobstructed view of the crumbling cliff’s edge coming his way, the cliff face peeling off layer after layer, sliding down to the valley floor far below the hall’s pedestal perch.

      He shouted, “Hold on!” again, just as the last of the supporting earth fell away, unveiling the entirety of the root mass, and in its whiskery underside was William, who’d been below ground level, clinging to the stuff.

      Unless the crumbling ceased, Benjamin knew that the tree, weighted by the root mass, not to mention its three clingers-on, would tip and plummet down the cliff. It was like a waterfall, he decided, and they were rushing toward the runoff...and there was no stopping a waterfall...and why does it just keep crumbling away like that...and... “Damn it!” he shouted. “Goddamn all this bullshit!”

      It became quiet. Silence but for the slightest trickle of dirt, and then even that stopped. No hissing dirt, no clunking rock, no clanging glass shards from the jagged edge of the atrium overhead. Benjamin dared to think that just maybe they’d get out of this little pickle alive.

      The tree moaned, a low creak from its bending trunk, and the top of the tree shifted against whatever it’d propped itself up on, screeching like a car wreck, and the tree roots slid over the crumbling cliff edge.

      Benjamin held an image in his mind. A magic cardboard carpet. He and Brenda racing down a grassy slope sitting atop a flattened cardboard box. When you live in a small town, inventiveness comes into play, and the magic cardboard ride, repeated over and over, was how the two of them had filled an entire afternoon one April day. She’d loved him back then, or at least he liked to think she had, and she’d clung to him tightly as they’d raced down that hill, their asses bouncing and bruising and sliding about on the slick cardboard. He’d had to hold on to the front lip of their sled so they wouldn’t slide off. He hadn’t been able to hold onto her. He wished he had. She would have liked that. And maybe then, if he’d done that one thing different, she wouldn’t have left and gone off with Macey. But it could be said that he was going to die a boy who had once been loved, couldn’t it? He at least had that, didn’t he?

      The tree jerked to a stop, nearly bucking Benjamin from it. He snapped open his eyes and looked down onto the three-hundred-yard drop. He wasn’t positive, he was dizzy and exhausted, but he thought the tree was doing that seesaw thing he’d seen in movies when the car is dangling over the cliff.

      “Willy!” he called.

      “What is it, boy?” William seemed irritated.

      Jeez, Benjamin thought. Like I’m inconveniencing him or something. “We got to get up out of these roots, man. Off of this tree fast.” He was scrambling for handholds on the stiffer roots, pulling himself toward the upper edge of the bulbous mass. “You hear me, Hobbs? Off the tree. Now.”

      He pulled himself up over the top of the roots. He could see, for the first time since he’d risen up out of the dirt, the scene to the east of the massive root bulb. The eastern half of the main house was still standing three stories tall. The giant atrium was only half there, a protective half-dome behind the leaning tree, its curved roof jutting out jaggedly overhead, just short of Benjamin’s position. Chunks and shards of thick glass were tumbling down occasionally, the weight of the atrium’s roof too great for what remained of its supporting walls. The tree had leaned back into the half dome of glass. For the moment, unfortunately, the glass wall was holding the weight of the tree. Where the treetop had hit the glass, there was a webbing of long cracks, a slight concavity, but as of yet, no collapse.

      “Bit stuck down here,” Benjamin heard William say. He must have climbed into the root ball and made his way to Hobbs’s side.

      The cliff face retreated another inch or so, and the tree slid a few inches, maybe a foot, making Benjamin fumble for a firmer handhold. Through the whiskery tendrils at the top edge of the root mass where Benjamin had managed to climb and glom onto, he could look down the length of the tree trunk, up into the shadows webbed against the bristling underside of the gnarled branches. Something darker than shadow was clinging to the twisted, deep-wrinkled bark of the trunk, just beyond the first outthrust of limbs. Against the black crosshatchings of twining branch and twig, against the subtle brownness of the dead leaves, was a set of eyes, glinting red as they caught the sun’s light, and they were staring back down the length of the trunk at Benjamin.

      Lumberjack, Benjamin figured.

      He pulled himself over the top edge of root bramble. He tumbled down along the brittle roots intertwined like wicker that ran to the base of the trunk. He re-anchored himself with fistfuls of pale root. He had to be careful not to slip off to either side. The tree had slid enough so that the base of the tree trunk, along with Benjamin, was at least ten feet beyond the cliff edge. He’d have to get past the ring of overly large roots, the surface roots, thick and rigidly pointed outwards, just ahead of him. He’d have to crawl past those and onto the trunk itself, and from there he should be able to jump to the raised plateau’s muddy tabletop. If only Hobbs and William would hurry their asses up and catch up with him. He wasn’t going to leave them behind. Not after all the—

      A moan from the twisted trunk, a crumbling of another cliff peel, and the tree edged farther over the drop-off.

      The thing clinging to the tree up ahead was scampering along the trunk toward Benjamin. He nearly lost his balance as he tried to back away from the creature dancing closer and closer to him, but then he recognized the little Brinikin girl from the graveside. She had an oblong piece of fruit in her hands, its skin the purples and blues of a bruise. The fruit was nearly as big as her rotting head. She cradled it in her upturned palms as she stepped up to one of the surface roots, a pillar she could easily hide behind. She remained behind the root, the tiny fingers of one hand inching into view as she gripped the root for balance. Benjamin wondered if she was hiding from him, expecting him to seek her out. Then her whole arm wrapped around the upright root-pole, and she began walking circles around it. A ring of blood was drawn where her flesh scraped the root. She held the fruit perched precariously atop her outstretched palm.

      Below Benjamin, somewhere in the thick of the twining confusion of root knot, William wailed, a sad sound, a repeated harsh melody, or perhaps a dirge of some sort. Had Hobbs died somehow? Squeezed to death by the torquing roots? Or maybe the lumberjack had attacked her. Whichever, Benjamin had a bad feeling she may have passed, and William was airing his lament. Good for her, Benjamin thought. She’ll miss the part where we die screaming, freefalling down that three-hundred-yard drop-off.

      “Hey there, little brother,” the Brinikin said.

      Benjamin could see that one of her pigtails had been pulled from her rotting skull. He wondered if she felt the pain, if she even knew it was gone. He wondered what it’d caught on, or what son of a bitch had yanked it out, and why hadn’t he been there to… He shook his head, a cheek-load of tears dumping from his eyes. He tried to put a smile on.

      “Hey there, Best,” he said.

      “Hey.” She stopped twirling around the root, staring at him with her pus-curdled eyes. “You remember when you were a little boy? Remember us playing?”

      Benjamin crawled forward, keeping one hand anchored in the roots in preparation for another of the tree’s gut-twisting slides. He told her no, told her he sure didn’t remember playing. She was twirling around the pole-root again, drawing a red crayon ring around it with her rotting forearm.

      “Well,” she said. “I was there, Benjamin August. Just wanted you to know that. Might do nothing all day, but I’m always there when you need me. Like my papa told me to be. Watched over the both of you just like I was told. A guardian angel, I am.”

      “Thanks, Best,” Benjamin said, up close now and refusing to rear back.

      “And what do I get?” she said.

      Benjamin didn’t know what to say. What’d she meant by ‘watched over the both of you’? Must be talking about Jessica. The little zombie girl had watched over her mother and brother. Okay. Benjamin did not want to linger on these thoughts.

      “Been a good girl,” she went on, twirling around her pole. “And what’s it get me? But I don’t care about that, Benjamin August. I mean, I’m okay. I still play.”

      “Can I see the fruit?” Benjamin said.

      See eyed him suspiciously, a gelatinous droplet of yellow pus dripping from her chin to the bruised skin of the fruit in her hand.

      “Never been too smart, you,” she said. “You eat this, you live forever, like me. I used to think that was a good thing.”

      “I don’t want to eat it.”

      “Good. ‘Cause you can’t. Hard as rock. Gone double bad now. The lady underground is dead.” She stomped her foot so Benjamin would know who she was talking about. “That’s why I wanted you to have that last one, remember? In the graveyard? When I pulled you out?”

      “I remember.”

      “That was the last one.” She was looking at him sternly, and Benjamin knew he was being reprimanded. “That was the last one where’s you could get in through the skin.” She rapped her little bloody knuckles on the petrified shell of the fruit. Benjamin heard the crack of the splitting fruit, and then realized it wasn’t the fruit she’d busted, but one or more of her fingers as she’d rapped on the hardened rind. She held up her broken hand. “Darn it,” she said, barking out one quick sob. Then she breathed deeply. “You could have eaten that fruit, and we could have lived forever. And we could have played and played. That was our last chance. But I didn’t want to explain everything then. My head gets all dizzy, can’t think for too long anymore. Hurts.”

      She stepped past the upthrust pole, onto the basket weave of inclining roots, and she held the dark oblong fruit up to Benjamin. “Here,” she said in a sweet little voice that nearly made Benjamin break down.

      He crawled a bit farther, and then he grabbed the fruit. It smelled bad, but not as bad as the one she’d offered him before. Its skin was rough and solid as stone, like an avocado forgotten in the back corner of a pantry. He hefted it, tossed it up and caught it. It’d make a dandy missile, he figured. He stood, shaking at the knees, and set his boots wide.

      “I’m sorry ’bout the car wreck,” the Brinikin said, grabbing onto his leg for support, leaving red hand prints on his jeans. “I should have done something to make it not happen, but I couldn’t think of what to do. I’m just a little girl.”

      He brought the oblong missile back behind him, aimed as best he could with his knees shaking as they were, and threw it with all his might—or what was left of his might—at the glass wall that supported the tip of the monstrous tree.

      He heard something crack, but he couldn’t monitor the outcome of his desperate toss. The throw had unbalanced him, and he danced in circles until he could pile drive his knees back into the roots and grab big fistfuls of the stuff. He’d gotten turned around. Best had crawled off somewhere. He looked over his shoulder at the glass wall where he’d pitched the fruit, and he saw that nothing had changed.

      The tree took another lunge over the crumbling cliff edge, and Benjamin was sure this was the last one, the skid that would tilt the scales, give the weight advantage to the root mass, and send them all screaming to their bone-pulverizing death.

      The webbed cracks in the glass half-dome raced to the extents of what remained of the atrium, and the supporting wall collapsed with a symphonic pang. The limbs on the underside of the gnarled trunk began snapping one by one, popping as dead wood does, and the tree settled to the muddied ground, its tip bouncing outside the jagged crown of the atrium’s fanged, circular base.

      A plume of dirt and tree shrapnel rose with this booming roost, and the shards of glass were tinkling like a wind chime. Benjamin could hear, beneath all this chaos, William climbing up the roots, breaking a few as he advanced, encouraging Hobbs, who, apparently, wasn’t dead after all. Benjamin reached over the edge of the root bramble and gave William a hand up. The three of them stumbled past the large ring of surface roots, stepped onto the trunk, and Benjamin thought they might just make it to solid ground. He was horribly tempted to knock on wood. He waited until William had helped Hobbs down to the mud before jumping down himself.

      He stomped his boot on the ground, figuring if that’s what it was going to take to make the whole hilltop collapse, may as well get it over with now. It held. He looked around at the ruin surrounding him. This was the cellar he’d been trapped in earlier. The prison of Beanstalk. It’d blossomed into an open-air museum. Bits of Scalabrini Hall lay strewn all about. Artful piles of broken glass were on display, threatening every footstep. And at the center of it all was the ancient magic tree, supine, laid out before him for his viewing pleasure.

[mospagebreak}

27. Somewhat Normal Lives 

The dead tree lay across the shattered atrium like some fallen prehistoric beast, its roots stuck out over the drop-off, its massive trunk sunk in the mud before the three bedraggled sightseers. It was late afternoon, still a few hours before sunset. Benjamin stood in stunned wonder, perplexed by the slow tick of time as of late. His belly was empty and roaring, his throat and mouth were dry. His bones hurt. Parts of him were numb; exactly which parts he wasn’t sure. Up on what remained of the landmass on which the Scalabrini’s had built their wonderful home, there was a slight breeze. Had to be cooling down to a somewhat bearable temperature. Still too hot for Benjamin’s tastes. And humid. The air heavy with blood and dirt.

      First thing Benjamin had noticed after scrambling down from the trunk was that the corner of the cellar where Beanstalk had been chained up, the northwest or southwest corner, Benjamin wasn’t sure which, was gone. The west half of the cellar, as well as the main house above, had fallen to the rubble below on the floor of the valley. Old Bean Scalabrini had to be lying in that rubble, Benjamin figured, his body broken, his blind eyes focused on the afterlife. Lucky bastard.

      Benjamin stood facing the tree, watching Hobbs mournfully walk along its length, ducking under and climbing over its branches, letting the multi-shaped dead leaves brush her face, her fingers tenderly caressing the trunk. This really peeved Benjamin for some reason or other. Maybe it was that the old lady seemed to care an aweful lot about a stupid dead tree, and she didn’t seem to care much at all about him.

      William was standing by the edge of the new cliff line. He was looking down over the drop-off, not really focused on anything down below, it seemed, just gazing into thick air. Benjamin truly hoped he wasn’t going to bellyache about his lost walking staff. He didn’t have the energy to listen to such trivial concerns. William turned and walked up to Benjamin, his hands held behind his back, his head bowed. His flannel shirtfront was a torn canvas layered with dirt and blood. Certainly didn’t look the mighty warrior he had on occasion over the last twenty-some hours. He seemed deflated, an old man, the town drunk once again. He wiggled his bare toes in the blood-streaked mud. This irritated Benjamin to no end, too; the brave warrior turned old drunk all of a sudden. Benjamin wanted more out of William than this toe-wiggling modest mouse act.

      “What the hell,” Benjamin began, low and quivering, hardly in control of the rage he felt a part of him now, inseparable, like the tomato base of a soup, or the industry of a town. He coughed up some dirt that had crept into his lungs, and he spat it into the mud. “What took you so long to climb out of those roots, Willy?”

      William lifted his eyes to Benjamin, seething himself, Benjamin could see now. Steeped with the stuff of rage. “One of those root creatures, m’boy,” he said. “had Star in its clutches.” He held up his left hand, amazingly painful to look at, blistered and peeling and dripping with both blood and pus. He dug a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and began to tenderly wrap the raw meat. “It spat on me, upon this.” He held up the hand once more, in case Benjamin had lost track of what the subject was.

      “Jesus,” Benjamin said. He checked himself for traces of vomit. He recalled that the lumberjack had vomited toward him as it’d scampered away. Seemed the monster’s bile projectile had fallen short of its mark. “I saw one, too,” he said. “It had an axe, Willy. I think it was—”

      “I don’t care what you think it was,” William cut him off. “You need to get us to that new tree. That’s all you have to worry about. I’ve called transport.”

      Benjamin remembered how William had been wailing from the twined guts of the root ball earlier. Must have been some sort of animal call. Benjamin caught himself looking up at the sky, expecting to see giant eagles circling. He glanced back at William, and he saw that the old man was busy trying to tie off his bandage using his good hand and his teeth. Benjamin turned and saw Hobbs working her way back from the tip of the tree. He figured she was saying goodbye to the dead, as people do at open casket funerals. As people do every second of every day.

      Benjamin had to piss, which he found surprising, seeing as how he doubted he could spare any of the fluids still pocketed in his dried-up body. He grabbed onto the rough bark of the tree and climbed up and over the massive trunk for a little privacy. The girth of the tree was astounding this close to the major surface roots, maybe ten feet distant, and it made for a tough climb.

      He jumped down and faced the opposite side of the trunk. Admiring the bark’s texture, empathizing with the crazy old woman’s reverence toward the dead hulk laid out before him—and not liking this empathy one bit—he pulled at his pant fly, got himself situated, and began jetting a clear stream of urine onto the gnarled bark. He was standing beside a thick bough, its stems heavy with greasy, limp maple leaves that trailed cilia the length of a man. He’d seen the long hairs of the tree’s foliage earlier. He’d thought the different leaf varieties, the long stringy leaves and the maple leaves and the palm fronds, were separate strains growing from separate stems, but he saw that they were all combined as one hybrid leaf. This tree had been a maverick, the finest example of its ilk, and for all he knew, it was the last of its kind. As he pissed, he examined the trunk. It was porous, and while it was multi-layered like bark, new growth over old growth, it looked the slightest bit reptilian, like a snake after sunning too long.

      To his right, the mammoth trunk gang-planked out over the drop-off, its bramble of root mass reaching skyward and out to either side. He glanced to his left, past the thick branch he stood beside, and was startled to see the white lettering of his name etched there, the first of it curled down under the mud-cradled trunk, the August Weller on full display, nearly within his reach. He could see the rotten, broken remains of the branch just below his name, the leaves of which, when the branch had been healthy and in place, had hidden the carved lettering.

      Farther to his left, beyond the stump of the broken bough, Benjamin saw more carved letters, slyly placed between a few intact branches, hidden from casual view. He pulled himself together, fastened up his fly, and reached for the newly discovered carvings, pushing at the dead, oily leaves that covered up this second name. Looked like it was just a single name. Looked like it was—

      Hands rushed at him from above, making Benjamin flinch, and he was grasped by the shoulders, his stitched one still tender, and he yelped as he was lifted up onto the trunk...and then he was being escorted roughly down the other side. His boots splashed down in the mud beside William’s bare feet. William had him at arm’s length, a look of disgust on his filthy, whiskered face.

      “You urinated on Dalai Dae?” he said, abashed, unbelieving, but keeping quiet so the advancing Star Hobbs wouldn’t hear. “Make no mistake, this tree is no different from the corpse of any person you may hold dear, though, by looking at you, by observing your actions as of late, I don’t think it’d be too far-fetched to assume that you hold no one dear besides yourself.”

      Benjamin raised his eyebrows, impressed by the drunk’s long-windedness. “I’ve held people dear, Willy.” He shrugged free from the drunk’s grip. “They all got worse than pissed on.”

      “If Star had caught you doing that, she would have come unhinged.”

      “Unhinged?” Benjamin whispered, seeing as how Hobbs was getting close. “She’s already unhinged. Her door’s been busted down, man.”

      William sighed. “Things are becoming raveled. If we could just—”

      “I got you,” Benjamin said, patting the drunk’s shoulder. “Light at the end of the tunnel, cowboy up, and all that bullshit, I know. I’m with you. Just make no mistake, old man,”—Hobbs was nearly on them, so Benjamin whispered extra quietly—“I don’t give a shit about your goddamned magic tree.”

      Benjamin arched his back as Hobbs stepped up to them. He raised his arms and stretched, feeling the comforting weight of the shotgun slung on his back. He combed his fingers through his hair, telling himself not to falter just yet, to see this through, to not be a pussy.

      There were tears on Hobbs face. The wounds inflicted by the caretaker’s razor-vines were showing as faint white scar tissue in the late afternoon sun. She wiped her face, slapped on the patented snarl, and glared disapprovingly at Benjamin.

      “What is it you plan on doing next, Benjamin?” she asked, a bite of venom in her voice. “Start a forest fire? Strangle some bunnies?”

      “I didn’t do anything,” Benjamin said. He couldn’t believe she was trying to make him feel guilty for what had happened, as if he’d been caught doing something unlawful once again and was no doubt going to be written up in the county newspaper’s police report for the whole town of Bingly to read. The townsfolk would avoid him again; this time they’d actually spit on him when he walked by on Main Street, as he’d felt they’d come close to doing on occasion. Oh, Benjamin thought, those damned eyes of hers, making it seem as if something criminal had occurred.

      Things were different now, however. Desperate, illegal acts were now ordained feats of heroism, Benjamin reminded himself. And no one in Bingly was going to wake up tomorrow morning, leaf through the newspaper over eggs and toast and read about the latest misadventures of Benjamin August Weller in the police report column.

      “I didn’t do a damn thing, Mrs. Hobbs,” he said, salivating over the thought of eggs and toast.

      “Those worm women did this,” William said. “All those tunnels bored underneath the house. Whole hill must have been riddled with them.”

      “I thought you had something to do with it,” Benjamin said, lifting his hands and wiggling his fingers, letting his eyes settle on Hobbs. “With your voodoo.”

      “I’m weak, too weak right now,” she said. “Like I told you, I couldn’t bend a spoon given the chance. And I don’t practice voodoo. Very romantic of you to think I do, but…” She breathed in a lungful of air, her face beginning to glisten with sweat, looking to Benjamin like she might pass out. She had to feel at least as exhausted as he did. He was going over her phrasings, ‘voodoo’ and ‘romantic,’ trying to figure out what she’d meant by that remark, when she said, “What is it you plan on doing next?”

      “Well,” he said hesitantly, “we’ve got to find the new tree. Get to it before Ibucus and his scissor boys do.” His eyes narrowed, agitated by Hobbs’s acrimonious stare. The anger she stirred up in him was alerting his system, sharpening his cognizance. He appreciated this burst of reawakening, but he did wish she’d stop looking at him that way.

      “Or not,” he continued. “What’s it matter to me? This is not my problem, Mrs. Hobbs. Wrong place, wrong time, that’s my problem, okay? I got nothing to do with any of this bull—”

      “Oh,” Hobbs said, “do not go down that road. Spare us, pretty please, little hero.”

      William rounded on Benjamin and said, “You know where we need to go. So tell us, and we’ll go. Pretty simple, I’d say.”

      Benjamin stared at each of them in turn. He hadn’t taken on any responsibility, hadn’t signed any contract, had he? He certainly did not want to lead these two old cronies around. But now there was the new revelation that had popped up when he’d found that second name carved in the trunk above his name. He’d managed to see just enough of those letters that the name had become clear in his head a split second after William had pulled him away. Made no sense that that name was engraved in the bark above his. And it would never make sense, unless, of course, he mulled it over, as he was doing now, which he knew damn well he should not be doing for sanity’s sake.

      “Answer me this before I tell you what you want to know,” Benjamin said. “How does the Lady know the caretaker?”

      “Just tell us where we need to go, Benjamin,” the old drunk said, looking less an old drunk than a schoolyard bully, stepping forward and clenching his fists like maybe he had plans to sucker punch someone. “We’ve no time for this!”

      “I need to know this one thing,” Benjamin said. “Tell me how the Lady knows who the caretaker is. Before the caretaker’s the caretaker, I mean.”

      “There’s a ceremony,” Hobbs said. “That ceremony involves many things, which, when done in the proper sequence, signify the sacrificed or, as I’ve heard it termed, the chosen. The lamb led to slaughter...”

      “Many things? What kinds of things are done in the ceremony?”

      Hobbs heaved a terrific sigh of impatience, and then she said, “There’s the blood-letting, the placement and the name carving. There’s the transference of power from the former caretaker.”

      “Name carving?” Couldn’t have been what she’d said. But he’d known this already, had been born knowing this. “What’s that? You mean like the caretaker-to-be’s name is carved on the tree?” Benjamin was feeling decidedly dizzy. It really could not go down this way.

      “Yes,” Hobbs said. “The caretaker’s...and her husband’s. Or, as I like to term them, the lamb and the butcher.”

      “His name,” William said, lifting a finger toward Benjamin, looking the part of that same schoolyard bully throwing blame for a fight. “His name is carved on the Dalai Dae’s trunk, Star. I saw it. Oh my. The little bugger’s name is carved on the tree.”

      “I saw the Lady down in that root cellar,” Benjamin told them, wanting to pull interest away from the name-carving topic. Right now, he did not want to think about that. Their eyes were focusing on him now. They were listening to him. “I saw her come up through the broken floor, those cracked tiles. Saw her dig into the caretaker.”

      They were gawking at him now. William’s brow was twisted like a dishtowel, then it smoothed somewhat, and his eyes brightened. “The transference,” he said.

      “Why is it,” Hobbs said, “no one calls my attention to these things when they happen?” She looked from Benjamin to William, as if she actually expected an answer, and then she turned her angry stare back on Benjamin.

      Benjamin stumbled ahead, knowing his reasoning might well be flawed, but knowing also that he had the last puzzle piece in his hand, and that it would be idiotic not to shove it into place. “Not only has the Lady relocated, she’s found herself a new caretaker.”

      Silence from the two gawking oldsters. Benjamin watched them, hoping something would click into place. He needed them to take control of the situation, stop asking him what he planned on doing next, start barking orders, pull a magic chariot from their asses, and get things rolling. He was too tired, too hungry, and his legs were shaking. But neither of them seemed willing to make a move, much less open their mouths. Needed some prodding.

      “But...,” Hobbs began. She’d relaxed her fiery gaze and was looking out past Benjamin now, her mind almost visibly churning. Good, Benjamin thought. She’s mulling it over. She’ll come up with a plan, take control. “But...,” she said again, faltering, “but the caretaker must be a Scalabrini bride. There’s the sacrificial ceremony that must be observed, and the bride must lay with the tree for a long while, many hours.”

      “Right, right,” Benjamin said. This had been the missing puzzle piece. Until he’d seen the rest of the carving on the tree while he’d been pissing, he hadn’t known how it would all fit together. He did not want to hear about any ceremonies, did not want to hear any more discussion concerning ‘lying with the tree.’ “Trust me, I get all that. I wish I didn’t, but I do. Now, we can stand around and I can tell you more, allowing Ibucus more time to get there before us, or we can roll on out of here.”

      “Where is Dalai Dae?” William asked.

      “Top of Hog Hill,” Benjamin said.

      They weren’t going to believe him. He gazed at their dull stares, saw they were stuck in some groove of befuddlement. Hell, he hardly believed it himself. Hobbs began to laugh. Not a good sign. William lowered his head, staring at Benjamin from under his bushy eyebrows. Benjamin shifted his weight from one boot to the other, anxious for a response from the two, despite their obvious, though varied, disgruntled posturing.

      “I don’t recall seeing Dalai Dae on Hog Hill,” William said. “If you’re making this up, I’m going to—”

      “There’s no time for this shit,” Benjamin said.

      “The Lady would never place herself out in the open like that,” Hobbs said between giggles. “She knows to keep herself secreted away. The top of Hog Hill is bare as an egg; anyone would be able to see her from town.” It was clear she realized her faulty reasoning even as she spoke.

      “Who the hell,” Benjamin said, “is going to be looking up at Hog Hill from Bingly, Mrs. Hobbs? Everybody’s dead. And she knows that. From the hill I saw her crawling all over Bingly. She was up out of the ground, spread out over the whole town, searching for something, or maybe blood. She knows the town is empty. Could be she was looking for you two. Anyone’s guess why she’d want you two losers around.”

      “She’s tired from all the running away, my bet,” William said. “Weak and confused. She’d look to us for help, Ben. We’re not the bad people here, Hobbs and I. We’re not the enemy, regardless of how you have us dressed up in your fanciful head.”

      “And besides,” Benjamin went on, ignoring the fanciful head remark, “maybe she’s sick of being hidden away. It’s you people that kept her secret all these years, kept walls up around her. Maybe she just wants some elbow room. You think of that?”

      “We kept her hidden for her own good,” Hobbs said.

      “She’s just a goddamned tree,” Benjamin said. “Maybe she wants to—”

      Hobbs slapped Benjamin’s cheek. His hand came up to rub at the stinging flesh, his eyes flitting from Hobbs to William. His whole face reddened as he felt his blood flush up into it, his eyes going steely. That was it. He was done. Done with the old lady. Done with the drunk. Impossible to deal with. Immovable, old, mossy-backed boulders.

      “Screw you guys,” he said. He turned from them, determined never to turn back.

      He ended up standing in the mud, well-distanced from the two old irk masters, looking up at the south wall of the main house towering above him. The structure had been ripped in half. Its west half had tumbled to the flats below. Looking up into the interior of the massive central hub of Scalabrini Hall, he could see that it’d never been intended as anything other than a screen against prying eyes. While the outside of the structure appeared stately, the inside was skeletal, a backdrop for a theater production. Scalabrini Hall had been nothing more than four walls and, at one time, a roof to shield the tree from outside observance. The interior walls had never been finished: no plaster, no paint, no intricate moldings. There were floorboards at each story, three tiers, perfunctory affairs, but they’d never spanned from wall to wall. Each floor was nothing but a simple walkway, from which the players of the house, those acting the parts of dignified wine merchants, could exit onto the grand second-floor balcony or wistfully peer from a third-floor window. There had never been any flooring up through the center of the house. The massive main house was a hollow shell, a silo, for the tree to grow into. Rickety wooden ladders, placed haphazardly, connected the floors. Looked to Benjamin like the flooring had been cut back at some point, making the circumventing walkways even narrower than they’d been—and why not, there’d been no actors in the house for some time, the production having come to a close years ago—to make room for the bulky atrium, for which the roof had also been torn out.

      A few corners on different floors, where the floor space was broader, looked to be appointed Brinikin lairs; tapestries were hung and beds laid, collected mementoes cluttered tiny shelves, and in one oddly colorful corner, a tattered Happy Birthday banner was draped from one wall to the abutting wall.

      Had there been a period, Benjamin wondered, before the familial bickering and derailment and Shakespearean plot twists, when this ragtag clan had tried to live somewhat normal lives? Before they’d become monsters?

      He had no time to entertain any thoughts other than escape from the cellar level. He shook his head and looked around him. The mud was littered with broken glass and wooden debris. He took careful steps to avoid these, distancing himself from the cliff.

      Ground level was the next floor up, and so, as he’d expected, there was no exit at cellar level per se. He’d already been trapped here once. The only way out had been down, and that stairwell had been jettisoned with the quake. But there was plenty of rubble that had fallen to the mud when the house had been ripped in two, and the first-floor walkway that had encircled the atrium had collapsed on the east wall, forming a zigzag of inclines. One section of this funhouse construction looked sturdy and flush enough to pedal a bicycle up to the ground floor walkway. Follow that to the south wall and the ornate doorframe set at the west edge and, ta-da, you could walk out of this façade of a mansion. Benjamin glared at the first-floor doorway. The quake had shaken the doors loose, or they’d been removed earlier. The area beyond the doorframe was hidden in shadow. Why did he get the feeling someone was watching him from those shadows? A condition a monster hunter sinks to, no doubt.

      Just as he was about to turn to the east wall’s post-quake scaffolding, he saw movement in the doorway...something black as shadow itself, its hide glinting in the few stray sunrays that penetrated the doorway. Huge and muscular, like some obsidian statue come to life, Devil’s Ride emerged into the light and snorted. Its eyes were dark but not glowing red as Benjamin had imagined them. And its hooves did not spark as they clomped along the floorboards of the narrow walkway. One ear was a nub, grown over with bristles of hair, and its mane was a tangled mess, briar and thorn poking from it in every direction.

      The giant horse advanced onto the walkway until its front hooves came up on the jagged edge. A hooded, bareback rider loomed above the one twitching ear. It was Beanstalk, spent and near collapse, wearing a robe of mismatched swaths of tattered garments sewn together. The robe was overly large, even on the giant, draping his hands and feet, and Benjamin would not have recognized him but for his size and the unruly head and chin hair sticking out from the hood. His head was lowered with exhaustion, but Benjamin could see the glint of the eyes, cataract-white, beaming from the sallow face.

      “Oh my God,” Benjamin said.

      Beanstalk tilted his hooded head. “Hardly.”

      “We thought,” Benjamin started, stumbling over his amazement at seeing the giant alive. He lifted his chin and spoke louder so the giant could hear him from up on high. “Your chains,” he tried again. “That corner,” he pointed to where he had an idea Beanstalk may have been shackled. “That whole side of the basement is gone, man.”

      Beanstalk raised his head, and Benjamin could just make out the darker pits of his nostrils over the bramble of his beard as light snuck in under the hood. Looked like he was sniffing at some scent he’d noticed beyond the stink of his own body. His head turned as he sifted through the odors wafting to him from below.

      “How’d you get free?” Benjamin asked.

      Beanstalk raised his arms to his sides. “I didn’t.” He released his grip on the gathered chains hidden within the long sleeves of the robe. They thudded and clanged heavily to the floorboards on either side of the giant black horse. The shackles were still attached to Beanstalk’s bloody wrists. “The wall released the wall pins, and this ship found itself adrift.” He threw back his hood, and then lowered his weighty arms. “Damn lucky I crawled the right way, legs all atangle in this filthy thing.” He plucked at his robe with a huge palsied hand.

      His bedding, Benjamin realized. Those ancient rags he’d slept on all those years.

      “I smell the reek of an unwashed drunk,” Beanstalk said. “Is Growling present?”

      “He’s here,” Benjamin informed the giant.

      “And the sweet fragrance? Is that flower petals rubbed on silk cloth hung in the breeze?”

      “What?” Benjamin had no idea what the giant was talking about. He was busy trying to remember something that should be brought up, something the giant would know about. Benjamin’s brain was milk-bloated toast, useless at the moment.

      “Is Star Hobbs here also?” the giant asked.

      “I’m here,” Benjamin heard Hobbs say from behind him. She didn’t sound particularly friendly.

      Benjamin turned to the advancing couple. Hobbs seemed her noble, bitter self again, no longer frayed at the edges, slaphappy, or anxious. William must have talked her down from her anger ledge. They were looking up at the ground-floor walkway, watching Beanstalk and his horse.

      “That can’t be Sheriff, can it?” Hobbs said quietly, awestruck at the sight of Beanstalk’s gigantic mount.

      “Were you half as glad to see me as my horse, I’d be a lucky man, Star Hobbs,” Beanstalk said. “As always, though we live torturously long, nothing changes, and I’m anything but lucky.”

      “Yes,” Hobbs said, staring up at the horse’s flapping lower lip with glee. She looked heavenly in her state of mirth, and it surprised Benjamin that seeing her in this state, he’d happily forgive her all the bitterness, all the offhand distain she’d meted out upon him since William had dragged him to her doorstep. But, he reminded himself, it had to be some sort of glamour, some magic spell she’d fastened around her like a raincoat, for she wasn’t as beautiful as she seemed, and she certainly did not deserve his forgiveness. He pulled his eyes from her, wondering at a thought he’d just had, how he wished she could have been his foster mother for at least a little while. Maybe they could have learned to get along, and maybe she would have cared enough to stick around longer than the others. She had her hands clasped behind her back, and she seemed excited and rested, glowing. Rocking back and forth in the mud, a sly curl of a smile on her lips, she said to Beanstalk, “Nothing changes. Least of all you, I’m sure.”

      Good lord Christ, Benjamin thought. Is she flirting with the giant?

      William rushed up to stand beside Hobbs, who had inched herself forward. The old drunk was staring at the giant horse as well. The horse whinnied and stomped one hoof at the sight of William below. Some sort of greeting, Benjamin guessed. Benjamin was quite taken by the horse himself. He’d never been a horse aficionado, and he’d especially tried to avoid the large ones. This one seemed as tall as the giant, and it was layered in muscle, looking very capable of stomping Benjamin to pulp with its plate-sized hooves. This was no doubt the same monstrous beast in those old wives’ tales, the urban legend known as Devil’s Ride, sightings of which had been written up time and again in those old police report columns Benjamin had come across. The horse’s hair was short and dark, and it shone with sweat under the sun’s slanting rays. Had to Devil’s Ride, didn’t it?

      “You came,” William said, his eyes locked on the horse. “Must’ve been close by.”

      “He’s never strayed far,” Beanstalk said. “I’d hear him just outside some nights. Nothing the poor boy could do to instigate my release, but I believe he must have put at least a few dents in this dank old shell of a house with his big old feet. Good boy, he is.” He was picking through the wiry mane, pulling out thorns and burrs. “He’s found himself a new family. Brought along rides for all of you. Now let’s get you up out of there. You’ve riding to do.”

      Benjamin could see activity in the cracked and shattered first-floor windows up above. He was relieved to see kindhearted horse eyes looking in at them from outside, nodding their lengthy heads with impatience, wanting Devil’s Ride back in their fold.

      “No time to stand around,” Beanstalk urged them. “Gather your things and climb up to me. Or I could send Sheriff down to you. That’s how I escaped that wretched pit, or rather, how I was rescued from it.” He was patting affectionately at the horse’s muscular shoulder. “He’s a good boy, Sheriff is. The best boy.”

      “Our things?” William said.

      Beanstalk, perturbed by the hesitancy of the cellar-bound group, said, “Yes, yes. Swords and such. Wigs and wands. One last battle to be fought, old man, before you can rest those—”

      “We have nothing,” Hobbs cut him off. She was looking around her, looking for a way up, or maybe she was looking for a crucial ingredient needed to magic Benjamin into a frog. He wasn’t sure which. It felt like his skin was stretched, folds of it drooping toward the ground. He found this sensation quite odd. He’d never felt this tired before.

      “Lost my stick,” William said. “Ain’t that the damnedest thing?”

      “Ah... Well,” Beanstalk said, his huge eyebrows raised, “we need you armed, Growling. Can’t have you fighting evil with your bad breath alone, now can we?”

      “Over here,” Hobbs called. She’d wandered toward the east wall to examine the collapsed upper walkway Benjamin had spied earlier. She was near the tip of the dead tree, gazing over the jumbled, broken limbs, pointing to the northeast corner of the cellar. William trotted over to her side, and Benjamin found himself stumbling after the drunk, a stray dog that did not want to be left alone. Glints of shiny things could be seen scattered amongst the rubble of fallen walkway. A hilt of a sword was sticking up out of the topsy-turvy pile of twisted, broken planking.

      “Come on, Benjamin,” William said. He climbed over the dead top growth of the tree. “You’ll need a weapon for when those shotgun shells are used up. Let’s go see what we can find.”

      Benjamin followed the spry old man to the corner. What else was he going to do? He shook his head, and then he pushed his palms against his eyes. Moving about was helping to lube his tired joints.

      William pulled the sword from the pile, and he hefted it, testing its balance. There were other swords buried in the rubble. A few were whole, others broken. William gestured at the pile with his bandaged hand.

      “Find something,” he said. “And hurry!”

      “What the hell are these swords doing here, Willy?” Benjamin said.

      William gazed up at the upper corner of the fake house. Benjamin followed his gaze, saw that the corner at the first-floor level was similar to the other corners—decorated and minimally furnished in an attempt to make them livable, bearable, and reminiscent of former times. The walls of this corner were mounted with swords, at least half of the display having fallen to the cellar when the quake had raged. Torn cloth ties and outlines of sooty grit on the nude planks indicated the fallen swords’ former arrangements.

      “A sword collection?” Benjamin marveled. “Pretty weird, man.”

      “People collect all sorts of things,” William said. “These monsters you call Brinikin were once normal people, Benjamin. If you can call rooming in the corners of a fake mansion normal.”

      “That seems normal enough to me,” Benjamin said. He’d set up a nice home-away-from-foster-hell in quite a few corners of abandoned buildings around Bingly during his younger years. There’d been more and more empty buildings as the years went by, with Bingly ghost-towning as it’d been doing. “But a sword collection? Where’d they get all these swords?”

      “People of means tend to travel. Travelers tend to buy trinkets.” William was prying up fallen floor planks with the tip of his newfound blade. “You yourself must collect something or other, I’ll wager.”

      Benjamin let his gaze fall back to the rubble that filled the cellar corner. “Comic books,” he told William. He dug up a broken sword and tossed it aside. Poking up from the wreckage, tucked into the shadowy corner, he spotted the tip of what looked like the compound bow Gilman Turnkey had found in Dodd’s Bar. Couldn’t be. Beside the bow tip, he saw the canvas strap of the duffle bag Gilman had carried. He grabbed the strap and heaved. The bag came up from under the splintery fallout. Benjamin looked in the duffle and found quite a few arrows nesting inside.

      “Comics?” William said. “Like Donald Duck? What a strange thing to collect.”

      “Willy,” Benjamin said, pulling busted planks away from the bow. “This is like serial killer shit. Must have brought these swords with them from wherever you guys kept the tree before. Some other time, man.” He pulled the compound bow free from the pile. Seemed in working order. Nothing broken. “A time when people carried swords around with them, I’m thinking. This is Turnkey’s bow, Willy.”

      “We’re wasting time!” Beanstalk roared from the upper walkway’s landing. The giant horse snorted in agreement.

      “This is a collection of dead men’s weapons,” Benjamin said. “Murdered men.”

      “William,” Hobbs called urgently. “Behind you.”

      William and Benjamin turned. From the direction of the cliff edge and the jutting roots, three grotesque forms were snaking their way through the mud. The human bodies, decayed and plump with veins, seemed multi-jointed, more so than your average, say, mud-scurrying zombie. Each lumberjack was dragging itself along with one hand, while the other hand brandished a long-handled two-edged axe. The head of each axe was the size of a man’s head, the sharpened edges curved and pointed at the tips. Vomit spewed from the lumberjacks’ leech-like mouths.

      “Gods,” William said, his new sword held limply at his side. “Will this parade never cease?”