Monday, August 14, 2017

The Brothers Brujo, by Matthew Lyons

The funeral is a Day of the Dead fever dream, all crowns and skeletons and robes and icons burning in the shimmering, dying light of the west. Women in face paint urge the icon down the street as mourners come and pin slips of green paper to his bedazzled robes, their faces slashed with tears. Men beat their chests and howl like apes, women offer up quiet prayers. Children dressed like mutilated angels kiss foreheads and pass out cardboard blessings. The air is thick and cloying with the cheap sugar of dollar-store candles and cigar smoke. This will last all day and deep into the denial of night, carried by songs of redemption and resurrection.

The mayor is dead, and the town, a part of it at least, dies with him and screams to be reborn.


Skeet's down by the rivermark, cutting symbols into the spackly mud with a stick when his brother crests the hill past the fence and calls down to him.

"Dad's looking for you."

Skeet keeps cutting in the dirt. He decides that one of the symbols means ribbon. He draws it again, just to make sure he's got it. Above him, Leonel skids down the crumbly hill, knocking sheets of dirt loose and tumbling down ahead of him.

"You have to come home."

"Who says?"

"I told you. Dad."

"He can come and get me himself then."

"Don't be a dick. He says the mayor's dead."

"I know he is."

"How? You've been out here all morning."


The two of them go silent. At first, Leonel can't hear anything, but then, a moment later, it's there. A shaking, dissonant clanging, like three bands playing different dirges against each other. A three-way car crash of notes and melody, metallic and reedy and ugly.

"They've been going for hours now. They only play like that when somebody important dies." Skeet keeps carving in the mud. He doesn't turn around to face the other boy. Not yet. He knows his bigger brother doesn't like to see the marks unless he has to, and right now, he doesn't.

A silence passes between the two boys, brittle and porous, like dry bones. Skeet threads one long-nailed hand through his scrubby short hair, Leonel kicks at the mud.

"He's waiting, Skeet."

"Let him wait. I don't want to go just yet and neither of you can make me."

"He's just gonna get madder."

"He's always mad."

"He's not."

Fine, fuck it.

Skeet turns to look at his brother, gets in real close, so Leonel has to look at the thick black X tattoos carved on the thin skin under his eyes. His earliest memory, his father buzzing the needle-gun into his face with cold, meth-head determination. The pain, the way it lit his brain on fire. The way he sobbed, like he was never going to breathe again. Red tears cutting down and pooling along the line of his jaw, dribbling on his bare chest and collarbone.

"He is, Leo."

Skeet studies his brother's face, somehow left unscarred by the old man's cruelties, shaped more by neglect and self-reliance than anything else. Agaju's damages are clever, left in places hard to find. Scars webbed under the hair, bruises punched in under his arms, belt lashes striped along his back and thighs. Skeet's suffered too at Dad's hands, but they both know Skeet's's the favorite, a fact that neither of them will ever give voice to. To Leonel, Agaju's an empty temple housing a withered, sadistic god. To Agaju, Leonel's a first draft, a failed attempt. Something to send out for beer and cigarettes and to fetch his brother. Groceries. Bets at the horse track. A warm, crying body to smack the shit out of when he gets in the depths of his booze-rages. School, if there's time, and if Leo's not too marked up to go.

Skeet hasn't ever been to school.

Agaju hasn't left the house in seven years.

"You know he is."

Leonel's eyes are already wetting up from staring at the tattoos. He finally draws a breath, sharp and sudden, and tears himself away from his little brother. When he speaks again, it's with a voice that shouldn't be his yet, weary and haggard and worn threadbare.

"It's just going to be worse for everyone if you don't come with."

Skeet turns and cuts another few symbols into the ground—still, time, death—then throws the stick into the dried-up crick. Smiles at his brother.

"Okay. Let's go."


"Okay. You first."


They climb the hill single file, hop the fence, and disappear from the little wild for the edge of town. They don't talk as they go. They don't talk at all, unless they have to.


Down the VA they call Agaju Threefer, or at least they used to, back when he went. Shorthand for Three-For-Four on account of his no legs and one arm. Blame Vietnam. Still enough life left in his ruined mutilation to fuck two sons into two different beer hall cheaps, though. Even married one of them for almost a year. Long enough to saddle him with one of the boys. Nobody remembers which one, though. Doesn't exactly matter. Bastards. All fucking bastards.

Around town, most people butcher his name, pronounce it Aggie-you or Aggie-jew, else they just call him the priest. They don't come out to the house 'less they have to. They don't know what he does the rest of the time inside the shitty clapboard trailer-and-a-half just outside the city limits, they're content to clank and drink and fuck their lives away, whispering rumors to each other and living in fear of his boys, the marked one and the one with the serial killer stare. Something wrong with the whole genetic line, half-buried out there in the dust.

Still, they need them. Don't mean they have to like it.

The boys pretend not to notice.

Agaju's hunched at the altar when they walk in, folded over in his chair and grunting and cranking on himself among the candles and incense. Skeet and Leonel wait quietly in the kitchen until he's finished. The hot smell of it, sour and musky, stains the air and he yells for fucko to bring him the rag.

Always fucko. Never Leonel.

Fucko forever.

The older boy stalks through the house, looking for the embroidered handkerchief that his dad calls the rag, stained and blackened from dozens of rituals past. When he brings it, his father snatches it out of his hand, then waves him off. He can do the cleaning himself. Soaks up the filth with the silk, then folds it and sets it on the altar. Pulls on his stitched-shut pants with his one arm, hard as oiled ship rope from years of solo work, then glowers at his older son from behind his patchy scrub of beard.

"You bring him?"

Leonel nods. Knows better than to actually try and speak to the old man.

"Then go get him. Bring him in here. Fuck you waiting for?"

Leonel shuffles off. Whispers from the kitchen. Skeet wanders in, hands deep in his pockets.

"Fuck you been, huh?"

Skeet stares at his shoes, still caked in muck. "Down the crick."

"Doing what?"

"Just, I don't know. Drawing. Stuff."

"Drawing and stuff? What the fuck is drawing and stuff?"

"Like drawing in the mud and stuff. Throwing rocks. Just stuff."

"Drawing what?"

"Just pictures."

"Pictures like what?"

"Just pictures."

"Pictures like the old language?"

"No. No. Promise."

"You sure?"

"Yes, Dad."

"You wouldn't lie to me, would you, boy?"

"No, Dad."

"Shit's not to be fucked with. S'bad old magic, you hear?"

"I hear."


"I said I hear."

"Good. You know what happened?"

"The mayor?"

"Good. Yeah. Look at me, boy. Said look at me."

Skeet looks. The sight of his gnarled stumps and raw, home-done tattoos makes his stomach twist and crawl in living tangles, a basket of pregnant snakes. Agaju sticks a Marlboro between his bloody, chapped lips and lights it, the Bic so buried in his knotty paw that it almost looks as if he's summoning the fire from nothing. Skeet's pretty sure that his dad can't actually do that, but he's not a hundred percent. Agaju blows a grubby cloud in his son's face. It stings his lungs with a familiar buzzing that he's almost learned to enjoy.

"You know this one's important."

"I know, Dad."

"Can't have anybody fuckin' it up for us."

"I know, Dad."

"Not you, not anybody out there, and 'specially not that fucktard brother of yours."

"Yes, Dad."

"We pull this one off, we get to eat for the next few years. This isn't parlor trick shit, a few bucks here and there from strangers. This is real work, and real work means we eat. You wanna eat, right?"


"So don't fuck up. And keep that retard far out of it. Got it?"

"Got it."

"Good. Go wash up and get ready. Imma prep the altar. Gonna give these hicks a hell of a show. That's what they're expecting, right?"


"You're motherfuckin' right, right. Go."

Skeet goes. Agaju stays. Sits still until he hears the rickety shower start up. Starts pulling together the rest of the ingredients he needs--fresh blood, mezcal, sage. A few bullets, a couple small amethyst daggers of scante. Teeth. Hair. A little glass phial of gasoline, another one of holy water. A straight razor, a box of matches. And the soppy rag.

American magic is brutal, and ugly, and messy, but goddamn it fuckin' works.

Happy with the collected mojo, the old man slowly creaks to the garage, and his homebaked tattoo gun. Strips his pants off and picks out a bare spot on top of his left stump. Dips the sharp end of the rig in the ink and starts drawing. Rides the needle deep, 'til red seeps out around the wet black. He relishes the hurt, drinks it in. The ritual demands sacrifice. When it gets too much, he starts to groan and growl and then he's coming again.


Leonel's out in the back lot breaking bottles against the rocks and fence when everything goes quiet. It's not one of those strange moments when synchronicity descends on the world for a perfect breath of shared silence, nothing like that. More like all the noise gets sucked out of reality. He can't even hear the ringing in his ears that sings him to sleep every night, a memento from one of Agaju's cerveza-and-meth-fueled hurricanes. The scar on the far side of his head tells the same story in a different language.

The silence is perfect, absolute. Crushing. It presses the air out of him, throbs the inside of his head in hot swells of blood. He tries to battle back the nothing, but he can't even scream. He tries and tries, feeling his face turning red, sweat breaking out in thick lines across his forehead. Futility. Gives him the spins. Not long before he hits the dirt, but it doesn't help. Just feels like he's being pestled into the side of the planet. He throws up a little in his mouth.

Then he rolls over and sees.

There, behind the bathroom glass door. Skeet, staring at him from over those fucked-up, ratty X's like drunk crosses. He doesn't blink. Doesn't move. He's the one doing this. It's him, it's always him. Except when it's not.

Leonel grabs for one of the beer bottles and whips it at his brother. It cartwheels through the air and bursts against the glass, exploding the window inwards in a razor spray. The sound is catastrophic, a gale sucked through a pinhole. There's a terrible wet ripping just beyond the inside of his eardrums and the first thing he hears when it stops is his own useless shrieking. Agaju's impotent yawling from inside, mush-mouthed rage like fuckenshit's wrong with you fucko. An insistent low-frequency hissing that he thinks is snakes until he remembers that Agaju made him kill all the snakes.

What is that?

He gets to his feet and follows the sound, shaky and a little bit painful still. There's a raggy hole in the side of the house where the sliding glass door used to be. Beyond it, Agaju bellows, the sound carried on the back of the hissing. Blades of glass blanket the bathroom floor tile, some rimmed with thin red. Steam rolls across the tops of them and out into the sunlight and Leonel understands. His brother's showering.

Which means the ritual isn't far off, now.

I won't watch this time. You can't make me.

He turns and runs deeper into the back lot, a maze of junked cars and corrugated metal, wire and bone and oil. He runs until he can't breathe and his legs quake and threaten collapse from beating against the earth. His face boils hot under his skin and his eyes well and blink.

Over ruined rusty sedans and towers of broken old TVs, he winds a path to his safe room, a gutted-out station wagon filled with books and a camp light and a sleeping bag and a couple porno magazines he swiped from Agaju's collection. He tells himself that he likes the pictures, but the truth is they make him feel funny and uncomfortable inside. The women are all hairy and misshapen and stare at him from the glossy paper with something dead and gross in their eyes. Some of the girls have dicks.

This is his real home, where he keeps his things, precious and obscene. His sanctuary from the strange hell that is his father's home. Out here, he can be alone. Out here, he can be himself. With all of his stolen things.

Under the hood of the station wagon, though. That's where he keeps his real treasure.

He vaults over the top of the station wagon and looks around, making sure no one's spying. Satisfied, he pops the catch and lifts the hood. Inside, where there should be an engine is a half-rotted, splintery wooden box. Inside that, the treasure, wrapped in a towel. Leonel pulls it out, slams the hood, then climbs into the wagon. Nestles down on the bunched-up sleeping bag and lays the bundle across his knees. Unwraps it carefully, as if he were handling a sick infant. Feels his guts curl up with something almost like arousal once it's in his hands.

Sleek and heavy and cold, black-blued and cut with walnut. The Henry .45-70 Government. Lever action. Pretty much the most perfect weapon ever devised by man or god.

One of Agaju's, but he's not good with rifles anymore. Obvious reasons. Still buys them, though. The old man buys all sorts of guns. Hides them around the house like he's expecting a revolution or a siege. He didn't even notice when this one went away. Leonel snuck it out of the house one night with a few boxes of bullets, kept it out here ever since.

He practices shooting when Skeet's away and the old man's drunk himself entirely under. The gun barks like a dog trying to rupture its own throat, spits bullets bigger than his fingers. It kicks purple blotches into his shoulder, grinds the second knuckle of his first finger into callused sausage. He's gotten a lot better at hitting all the targets.

In the secret places deep away in his heart, he likes to call the gun Ochosi.

He loads the weapon --four in-- and snaps the lever shut. Slides the barrel out of one of the wagon's windows, towards the house. Imagines putting holes in the walls until metal hits meat. Either of them, both. Let their holy wounds fill the house with blood and drown their attendants. He and Ochosi alchemizing living things into empty objects.

Skeet and Agaju and their bullshit magic.

This is real magic right here, motherfuckers.

He sets the rifle down next to the bag and turns toward the other side of the car, face to the sun. The warmth is radiant and sets his insides glowing. He stares until the burned-out afterimage of the sun eclipses the real thing. He doesn't think he's blind, but still clenches his eyes and basks in the liquid, fluttering nothing dark until the pain dismounts.

When he opens his eyes again, he sees the note.

Hermano, written across the top in his brother's clumsy script.

He unfolds it, holds it up to read. Goes through it twice. He even signed with his real name. Not that bullshit nickname Agaju makes them use because he's scared of the real one. Skeet. Agaju's own personal joke, his sons little more than wasted cum-shots to him, outside the utility of the rituals.

Leonel reads the note again, and again.

He likes what he reads.


Steam climbs the mirror and blurs out the blood, leaks out the hole in the wall. Through the churning fog, the marks under his eyes look different now. Like ampersands, or pound signs. Skeet can still hear his brother wailing when he climbs in the shower and starts rinsing off the blood. The water darkens as it licks along his new cuts. The heat stings. Makes it feel like his whole body's on fire.

Soap's only gonna make it worse.

Still, he reaches for the bar of dollar-store Kleenscrub and tries to get the thin, gritty pulp to lather. The hurt gets worse and worse. Alcohol in the soap. Makes him want to scream, but he doesn't, saves it for later. Gonna need all that air, all that power for the ritual. So he soaks the pain and swipes a finger through the cheap suds. Starts writing on the Plexiglas with one finger.





Two more letters and he's done. Admires his name, clear against the steam, then wipes it away. Gonna need that for later, too. A quarter of a mile away, in the rusted depths of the lot, his brother should be finding the letter. No way to tell if it worked until later. But he believes. And that might be enough.

The warmth in the water starts to gutter. Skeet turns it up as high as it will go and burns the chemical sting away. Lost in the steam.


Agaju rolls the bottom of his lighter over another piece of glass. Relishes the brittle crunch of it, no other sound like that in the world. Empties the crumbles into the bulb of the pipe, fires up the lighter, the flame a steady blue dagger of heat. Rolls the pipe over the fire until little lizard tongues of smoke appear inside and tangle around themselves. Puts the other end to his raw, chappy lips and hits it.

Chemical biters cut with sweet decay fill his mouth and lungs and spark hectic at his nerves and fillings. Like smoking wet garbage on fire. The rush is a demon whistling through his veins on a supersonic jet. For a moment, he forgets just how much of himself he's missing. For a moment, he's whole again. Restored masterfully by a loving god, the shine back on the apple here at the bottom of the world.

Then it fades and the old familiar wells around the emptiness like blood from a wound. Useless, alone. A heart filled with rotting pink vapor.

He's still got time. He's got plenty of time.

He takes a heavy slug from the bottle of mezcal and fires up the pipe again.

Come back. Please.

For the love of god, please just come back.


All around the house, there's nothing.

A grand empty washed in sand and mottled with vegetal scrub under the unchanging, unforgiving dome of the desert sky. Their house, a lone outpost built up against the edge of a wasteland, fortified with rust and steel and magic and blood and hate. Night falls in a heap and Leonel can see for miles. Lights stud the horizon, the town in the distance, a cluster of lives burning electric.

Soon they'll come, bearing the light as they wade through the darkness, draped in their strangest finery and all their desperate cruelties. Pressed under the cold livestock weight of the mayor on slab. Come to pay witness to the sermon, Agaju's ritual. Come to see real magic.

Leonel clutches Ochosi in both hands and nestles down in his tower of scrap and broken glass. Closes his eyes. Waits for the sounds of them to rusk and clatter up the empty miles between the house and the town. There'll be no mistaking it-- Leonel is the only one who walks the dirt road, and he's already here. They only come for the ritual, and discourage the curious. Agaju shoots at the curious from behind broken-out windows. You only have to kill someone once before they learn. Only a few townies bear the marks of Agaju's education, treated as heretic plague. Examples of the priest's wrath, for all to see. Hasn't been a new one in years.

Sleep tugs at him from beyond the walls of perception and he begins to sink. His eyes are still already closed. It's so easy. He disappears, and he waits, and he listens, and in his dreams, he is not himself.

Then, the parade. Leonel grinds the fuzz from his eyes and rises, watching them cross the glass eye of Ochosi's scope. One by one by one by one. Men in tailcoats, women in ballgowns. They all wear masks, brutally rendered in exacting detail that turns his stomach. Wolves and coyotes with slavering jaws, birds with glassy, bloody eyes, insects with mandibles that click-click-clack in time with their steps. Some wear masks not of animals but of vile caricatures of human beings, faces Leonel knows from town, their features all mutant and obscene, artificial deformity.

They wear these clothes to make the ritual auspicious. They wear the masks to hid their faces from the old man and each other. As if their supposed anonymity absolved them from colluding with the local necromancer. They hide in their masks, believing that they're safe from Agaju and God and each other and themselves. Formality coupled with idiot superstition. As if they could keep him from seeing anything he wanted to. The listen to their fear and their confusion. They play futile coward. Agaju always laughs about it after they leave.

There, in the middle, on a stretcher bedecked in fake jewels and sugar skulls and roses and cakes, lies the mayor. Carried by the four strongest men in the town. Fishbelly white and sloppy red, dressed in a while baptismal gown with his hands laced together over his prodigious gut. Eyes closed and held seal with two heavy silver coins. Washed and trimmed and shaved leather-smooth. Brought unto the edges of the known world to be made whole again, their very own Hillbilly Christ.

Leonel's sure he died like he always does -- too much crank and booze and pussy and donuts for his overworked heart to handle. Wonder who found him this time. Suppose it doesn't really matter. Agaju will do what he always does, and behind their masks, they'll all quietly thank their dead god that it worked. And everything will go back to running the way it always does. No cops. No law. No government eye. No consequences. A tiny kingdom with none but one rule.

Until the next time he dies. And the next. Again and again into the depths of vulgar infinity.

Leonel lowers Ochosi and lays it across his lap. Shuts his eyes and listens to the sound of the crowd's hushed jabbering as it carries over his wreck of a home.


"―think it really works―"

"―must be some kind of sin―"

"―Threefer's mad, always been that way―"

"―those boys getting to be a problem, I don't give a fuck what they can―"

"―You haven't seen him do what I have―"

"―public nuisance―"


He hears them all. They say his name. They mangle it with hate and fear and too many teeth. Maybe they've never heard it said right. Something wrong with their hearing, something wrong with their brains. Leonel thinks about him and Ochosi cleaning the wax out of their heads.

Electric candles light their way from behind, but he doesn't see them. He just lies in his self-made cage and lets the blood bubble out of his brain.


The limbs are cracked and splintery and uneven and don't fit over his mangled stumps the way they used to. Had them made years back, when he was thinner, less gruesome. He hasn't worn them in almost two years, and in the time between they've started to grit and rot. They grind wooden needles into his scars and his bones and he cinches the leather belts tighter to distract from the hurt. The skin underneath goes pallid and squeezed-stiff and he punches his misbehaving flesh in toward the bone until it learns to do what it's told. He secures the buckles and, swallowing back tears and yelps, heaves himself up.

Agaju totters over to the dresser on driftwood legs and uncaps a pint of Yukon Jack, presses the mouth to his lips and drains it. Honey and spice and battery acid snarl into flame in his belly like a torch held to a ball of crude oil. It aggravates his ulcers and for a moment, he feels as if he's going to belch blood, but it passes and settles into a manageable, coiled pain.

Then there's a knock at the front door and it's time.

He creaks and clicks into the living room and shows them all to the altar. The four biggest ones set the mayor down on the marble slab and step back. All the masks turn slowly to leer at him with plastic imitations. Nobody makes a sound. They know how this works. After seeing it so many times, they'd better. He basks in the silence. Owns it.

For a moment―just a moment―he thinks of his boys. Skeet, out in the hallway in his ritual raiments, the X's under his eyes pulsing with power. He doesn't know where the other one is. Wherever fucko got to, he'd best stay there, not fuck this up.

Agaju takes a deep breath, and begins. The sound is like a clap of thunder.


Skeet slips into the altar room as his dad shows the townies to their places. He's small, so it's not hard to hide behind adult legs and skirts, staying out of sight. They're all wearing masks anyway, so of course they can't see. Agaju's too concerned with staying upright to see anything else, but Skeet sees him. All that pride cut across his face like carved from wood. Severe and ugly darks and lights burned into his flesh.

Power gathers around the altar, makes the air feel puffy electric. Skeet's lower eyelids hurt and the crowd goes silent. Blood pools heavy in his fingertips as if drawn there by some alien gravity. It's close, now. He wonders if Agaju can really feel it or if he's just faking it.

In the middle of the room, a crease opens in the altar and none of them see it. Not even the old man has eyes to understand. Beyond the crease, Skeet can see shapes, impossibly massive and drowned in shadow, writhing in the light. His mind recoils at first, but he makes himself look into this strange bright dark beyond, to call to them, these dark things. Teeth the size of houses, tongues like highways. He leers into the strange void and when a colossal yellow and black eye rolls toward him, he has to force himself to not scream. It's coming. The ritual is already underway--just not the one Agaju thought.

The crease splits wider and light begins to spill out, laying heavy on the crowd, a blinding, tangible thing. It renders the expensive horrors pulled over their faces cheap and artificial, exposed for mummery. Skeet wonders if, underneath their costumes, they're squinting without knowing why. He hopes so, likes to think so.

He leans into the power and the light and the presence of that terrible, lake-sized eye, makes himself a conduit.

He whispers his true name against the crushing silence and that's when the quiet's blown apart.


Something fucked up happens to a normal person's brain the first time they see real magic. It's like a disconnect. Because real magic isn't like people imagine in the movies.

Real magic is so much better, and so much worse.

Most people can't comprehend it, really. It's too much, too sudden, too vulgar. So the brain only lets in little pieces, flashes of light and color and salvos of sound from far off and not much more. It edits the rest out, cuts lacunae in itself, leaving little more than pitty cigarette burns behind. Metaphysical self-mutilation at its finest, the limited human mind hurting itself in little ways in order to distract from the bigger, uglier damage. To make the truth a little more manageable, because undiluted, it isn't.

The truth is that magic's a beast, enormous and lumbering and starving. It's powerful, and it's violent, and it makes a fuck-awful mess that people don't want to see, or if they see, they don't want to remember. So their minds compartmentalize and let them remember the lights and the pretty colors and the temporary suspension of the laws of physics. They hear thunder instead of screaming. They forget the blood and the shock and the stink and the explosions of teeth and hair that seem to come out of nowhere.

They forget that magic's like watching someone get shot in the head.

Even when they're watching someone get shot in the head.


The finger-thick bullet rips through brain and bone and Agaju's face bursts in a bright red poppy.

He hits the floor in slow motion and everyone starts screaming.

In the corner, his marked eyes glowing in the shadows, Skeet forces the crease the rest of the way open and lets the magic do the rest.


Say fucko now, you stumpy shit.

Ochosi barks again and mule-kicks the soft of Leonel's shoulder. A cloud of smoke rises from the muzzle, and through the blown-out window, he sees a sheet of blood skate off a lady's head before atomizing into thin nothing. Behind the smell of burned powder, there's the ozone electricity of his brother's ritual seeping out of the house in vaporous waves. Almost at its saturation point. Seconds away.

Skeet'll handle his part, Leonel just has to handle his own. Crowd control, that's what his little brother called it in the letter. He had the whole thing planned out. Freedom from the gimp and his abuses and his bullshit in a few easy steps. All it would take was a whole lot of dead people, and that wasn't going to be a problem.

Leonel knocks another empty brass from the rifle and looks down the scope at another scared masked someone, crouching and hiding from the madness they've found themselves in.

Breathes, in, then out, slow.


Another spray of hand-tooled foam rubber and chunks like rose petals floats into the dark.


The air inside catches fire and resolves itself into a spiderweb of characters from a language that doesn't exist. They swirl and lick and flood into each other, a wave of orange and red and black descending on the gathered heads as they're trying to escape. It's no good. The doors are lodged shut, or locked, or blocked. The result's the same. The manimals start clawing at each other, kicking and punching to try and find another escape that doesn't exist. The smell of burning pork mingles with the rank fog filling up the room.

Then, finally, thankfully, they start to die.

They breathe and swallow scalding oxygen, they catch flame and fall to the ground next to what's left of the old man. They roll around. They scream. They beg. In the middle of the room, the mayor's anointed carcass swells and blackens and erupts, spilling over with a phalanx of rotten meat and insects and unidentifiable effluvium that immediately catches fire. The burning spillage runs over everything, seeps into eyes and noses and throats. Living napalm burns the life from them.

Then they go quiet, all at once. The magic drains all out of the room, and then Skeet's alone in an abattoir. He's exhausted and sweaty and sort, but he's smiling wider than he has in maybe his whole life. It splits his face in half, a while calcium zipper spotted with red and black. Something moves under his skin, something gargantuan and heinous and ancient. His tattoos knit themselves into another shape, and beneath his feet, the house is collapsing. He unlocks the doors and leaves to wait for his brother.


Wood bows and cracks, siding warps and gets stripped away. Glass bubbles out for the briefest of moments before shattering entire. The house crumples in on itself as if pressed by a compactor, or crushed by the invisible hands of some pissed off elder god. Leonel watches it happen from atop his tower of ruin, Ochosi still warm in his white-knuckled fists. It doesn't make any sense.

When the house is good and flattened and gone and the smoke's cleared, he looks down the scope again, just in time to see Skeet's small form walking off, away from the crash and massacre.

Down to the rivermark.


"Are they all dead?"


"All of them?"

"Yes. All of them."

"What happened to the house?"


"I saw."

"Then why'd you ask?"

Skeet's floating in the river, arms out like a drowned Christ. Black water that wasn't here before laps at him and drags the edges of his clothes out in white streamers. Leonel can see that his little brother's tattoos aren't X's anymore, they're stars, infinitely black. He has the sudden vertiginous sensation that he's not just talking to his brother. The twin stars look up at the empty night, seeing more than Skeet's other eyes ever could. Ochosi is heavy in Leonel's hands, but he holds it close all the same.

"Did you do that to the house?"



"I can do anything."

As if to illustrate his point, Skeet raises one hand from the water and all around him, slithering red and white coils surface and dive and surface again. Leonel sees long blades of fin, and pocks of bright black eyes. Eels. Dozens of streaky, albino eels. He shudders, suppresses his gag reflex, but doesn't look away. There's a pattern to it, some horrible symmetry in their thralled ballet. He doesn't want to see how it's beautiful, but he can't help it. The eels froth around Skeet for another moment, then vanish underneath the sputile waves.

"How did it feel?"

He almost lies, then he doesn't.



Thunder trundles overhead, uneven percussion beyond the clouds. Leonel's shoes sink in to the wet loam of the rivermark. Grubby dirtwater splashes his laces. It takes him a minute to realize, the river is rising. Slow at first, but now steadily. He steps back onto the dead grass to stay dry. It crisps under his feet, a whisper against the chatter of the water. He turns away and doesn't see the thing that became his brother sinking in.

Over the ridge, the lights are flickering and going out. The wakes rumbling to rest, the townies passing out drunk and stoned for the night or maybe just dying. Maybe the fog of his brother's magic reached that far, snuffing lives out as it rolled along the wastes, chilly and indifferent. By morning, whoever was left would come looking for their friends and mothers and brothers, and when they came, they would come with teeth and knives and bullets and heads brimming with weird, spoiled hate. They'd cut the boys apart and eat the pieces. Screaming and jacking off to their own delusional self-righteousness as they did. They would have their revenge.

Or at least they'd try.

Better that they never get the chance. Leonel turns back to tell the brother-thing that he understands, but it's gone. Only the waves remain as the black, oily river rises nearer the ridge that blocks it from the rest of the valley. Not long before it spills over, blackens and drowns everything in its path. Heedless.

Leonel watches the opaque water rushing over everything for a moment more, then returns to the remains of the compound and fetches his boxes of bullets before turning his attention back to the distant town. He sets off on foot. He takes his time, no need to rush. The walk is cold and dusty and he pays it no mind. They get closer and closer and Ochosi grows warmer against his palms, as if excited. He purrs to the gun as he reloads it and walks the path. He tells it secrets and the gun whispers back.

At the edge of the town, next to the first house, they stop and listen to the nothing of locked doors and drunk sleep. The stillness of playhouses and rust-blackened barbecues and empty, distant highways. Not long for this world.

There are lights left to extinguish and he still has a little magic of his own left to dispense.

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