Three months in, and the drought still hadn’t ended.
Rob shut off the TV and wiped the sweat from his forehead. On the counter, the box-fan whirred steadily on the second setting. Rob debated turning it onto the third -full blast- but ultimately decided that the noise wouldn’t be worth it. Yet.
Rob didn’t care for the news. Too many things in the world that he couldn’t help that only served to upset him once he learned of their existence. He only ever watched the weather and sports. And lately, even weather was a downer.
Rob leaned back in his stool, bracing his back against the shop's wall. Empty aisles of salty snacks, honey in jars, carved rocks with the town's name on them and a hundred other useless tourist knick-knacks say quietly on their shelves. Out the window, he could see the equally empty shops across the street. Everything- road, shops, and dirt were in dusty shades of browns, yellows, and more yellows. The whole place was dead, not just his store. Deader than dead. It was 106 degrees outside and nobody in their right mind would be caught in this heat. Not for tourist shit they all sold, anyway.
A brief image of his working AC at home flicked through his head.
Fuck it, he thought, getting to his feet. Shop's closed.
He put on a baseball cap featuring the name of a team he'd never seen play, unplugged the fan, turned the sign on the door window from Open to Closed, and was out.
While he was locking the door behind him, he heard the scream of an engine and the squeal of tires. Someone somewhere was driving way too fast.
A black van came screeching out of nowhere. It stuck out in the desert road like a rotted black abscess. A cloud of kicked-up dust followed it, reminding Rob strongly of cartoon car chases.
The van sped on a good twenty miles over the speed limit and blew past Rob’s shop, leaving him in the dust.
Huh, he thought. That’s not something you see everyday. He waited until the van was gone before getting into his truck. No sense getting on the road when crazy people were on the road.
He went home.
* * * * *
Rob’s place was small and cluttered, but it was home and at the moment it was twenty degrees cooler than the outside world. His cat, Mags, was splayed out on her blanket in the corner, surrounded by the ridiculously large litter she’d given birth to a few weeks earlier. Around her, eight kittens ranging from solid black to patchy mostly-white calico wriggled around her. Mags yawned and got heavily to her feet when Rob came in.
He scratched her behind the ears and then gave her some of the fancy canned catfood. This wasn’t, he told himself, going to be a regular thing. It was just what she got as a treat for putting up with so many kittens. The old gal deserved a treat after that.
Quick inspection showed that there was nothing good on TV, and he wasn’t in the mood to read. It was too hot to do anything outside, and there wasn’t anyone he felt like talking to. It was too damn hot. So, despite the fact that it was a terrible waste of a day off, he went to bed. He didn’t bother getting undressed, and was asleep before he hit the covers.
* * * * *
He was woken by the noise of a truck driving twenty miles over the residential speed limit. Before he could decide whether to get back to sleep or get up and use the restroom, there came a crash from down the hall.
Rob shot out of bed, suddenly wide awake.
The big window in the kitchen was broken. Not just cracked, but shattered with a gaping hole in it like someone had thrown in a couple of cinder blocks.
"What the hell said Rob, flicking on the lights. Teenagers, he thought. Punk kids having a laugh. he moved to the phone to call the police, but before he made it, he heard yowling coming from the livingroom.
Rob went to see what was wrong with Mags. Could she have been hurt? What if she was in the kitchen when the windows broke-
He froze in the doorway.
Crouching over Mag's blanket, loading kittens into a burlap sack was a young boy. He couldn'tve been older than eight. Rob had a nine year old nephew, and this kid was a little smaller. His hair was gray. Rob couldn't quite figure that part out, any more than he could figure out why a kid was in his house stealing his cats.
"Hey!" he yelled. "What're you doing?"
The boy hissed at him, baring teeth that were far too sharp for a little boy, and ran away, clutching the sack of kittens to his chest. The boy bolted out the front door, and Rob ran after.
* * * * *
The kid led Rob down the street, down the block, around the corner, and into the now-empty parking lot of the local gas station. He ran behind the snack shop, out of the light and into the little wedge of unpaved dirt that ran between the snack shop and the chain-link fence lining the back of the station. It took Rob a minute to find him again.
"There you are," Rob said when he checked behind the building. Through the dark, he could make out the small, pale figure hunched over beside a trashcan someone had forgotten ages ago. He could hear small mewling sounds coming from the sack.
"Kid!" barked Rob, heading towards the boy. "Give me back my cats. Where are your parents? What the hell are you doing out here? Why did you break into my house? You're parents are paying for that window. Why the hell did-?"
The boy looked up. Rob stopped dead.
Rob had been wrong, before, to say the boy had gray hair. He had white hair- not gray; white. White like ice, white like clouds, white like breakers on the sea. His eyes were blue- even from this distance Rob could see that they were blue. Light blue, sky blue, blue that was light in eyes that seemed deep and the longer Rob looked into them, the stronger the feeling of falling became and, for a second, he thought he could hear the sound of rain—
The boy blinked, and Rob was free. Almost. No matter how hard he tried, he found he still couldn't move.
"Be silent," the boy hissed in the voice of a man. Robert's jaw snapped shut of its own accord. "This does not concern you."
And after that, the boy did not speak to Robert again. While Robert watched, the boy took a handful of the kittens. He counted them out in his hands, placing one back inside the bag, until he had only seven. From the bag, he also brought out flowers, and placed them around and on the little cats.
Then he brought out the knife.
Stop! Rob tried to scream. It was no use, he couldn't move. Couldn't do anything.
One by one, the boy stabbed the kittens and one by one, he gutted them like fish. There were tiny snaps as he broke open their rib cages and cut out tiny red things that must have been their hearts. Each heart he took, he popped into his mouth.
When all the cats were dead or dying, and all the hearts had been eaten, the boy got to his feet. He held his arms straight up in the air, bloodied-hands open, like he was reaching for something, and he closed his eyes. Lightning struck the ground right in front of him, inches away from his toes. The boy jumped and laughed.
"Finally!" said the man's voice. The boy pointed to the wall. Lighting fell from the sky, looking like it would strike him, only to curve and bend with his arm, striking the wall. Again, the boy laughed the laugh of an adult. He brought lightning down on the ground, and then the fence, and then on the trashcan. Then he pointed at Rob.
For a moment, Robert was certain he was going to die. That the horrible boy who was not a boy would blast him with lightning and laugh while he died.
Instead, the boy let his arm drop to his side. He looked as though he wanted to say something, but before he could, the air filled with the sound of a screeching car. The boy’s eyes widened and his lip curled, showing off the too-sharp teeth. He said something in a language Robert didn’t know but could safely assume was a curse.
“They’ve been following me all day,” the boy said. “As if they could continue containing me indefinitely.” He waved his hand, and suddenly Rob could move again.
“Come, father” the boy said, grabbing Robert’s arm. “You have a car, yes? I saw it.”
“Get away from me!” Rob recoiled, but was once again frozen in place.
“It’s no use running,” the boy said. “You will be my cover. I cannot take them on yet. Those hearts will not sustain me. I need something more.” Suddenly the boy smiled. “And you will help provide them.”
The boy took Robert’s arm like a child would hold onto a parent. Most children didn’t stain their parent’s sleeves with blood, though. Without any interference from his brain, Robert began stiffly walking alongside the boy. They walked all the way back to Robert’s house. Inside, Mags was crying, looking for her kittens.
The one is still back at the station, he thought. He wondered how long it would take for it to die.
The boy waited patiently while Rob got his keys. He allowed Rob to pet his cat and lock up the house before they left.
“So where are we going?” said Rob, pulling out of the drive. “As the driver, I think I have a right to know.”
“The hospital,” the boy said.
“Why there?” Rob risked asking.
The boy gave him a blank look. His lips were still red with blood from the hearts. In his hands was the knife. “Do you really wish to know?”
Rob said nothing and focused on driving.
I can crash, he thought. Into a streetlight. Maybe get it so I just get the passenger side. But it had to be somewhere where nobody else would get hurt. Well, there was no real risk of that, now. The place was dead. It was too hot for anybody sane to be out tonight-
Rob didn’t hear the black van. It came out of a side street and hit Rob’s car from the passenger’s side. All Rob could thing as he was thrown violently to the side was Well this saves me the trouble.
The boy hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt. He was thrown out the window and landed several feet away in a bloodied heap. Rob had been wearing his seatbelt, and so was stuck inside the car when it was flipped upside down.
His vision faded for a few seconds. He thought he would pass out, but the boy would not let him. Rob found himself unfastening his belt and crawling out of the wreck, despite the pain in his neck and arm.
“Get down!” shouted someone behind him. He turned and saw a man in a suit pointing a gun at him.
“I can’t,” he said. “Help me.”
“Silence,” said the boy. Rob’s mouth snapped shut.
“Tlaloc,” said the agent (and to Rob’s mind he had to be an agent. This entire ordeal reeked of M.I.B.) “We have back up heading our way right now. Release this man and surrender.”
“I think not.” The boy, Tlaloc, pointed at the agent and lightning fried the man before he could fire off any shots. “Come,” he said to Robert. “We must hurry.” He went to the agent’s truck, now dented in the front, but otherwise in working condition despite the crash. “You’re too slow,” he said.
“I’m hurt,” said Rob. “My back-“
“Pathetic.” The pain in his back was suddenly gone. “Get in the car,” said the boy.
Rob unwillingly got into the driver’s seat, and they were off again.
Help is coming he thought. That’s what the agent said. Backup is coming. That meant all he had to do was wait it out and not get shot.
“We’re running out of time,” the boy said. “I can feel them approaching. Drive faster.”
Rob did, but he didn’t go to the hospital. He took the most roundabout, meandering, circular path he could think of. All he had to do was wait this out. The men in black guys would get there and they’d take care of everything. They would-
Rob hit the brakes so hard, he thought he might’ve gotten another dose of whiplash.
“What?” he said.
The boy was already out the door.
“Hello,” he called.
It took a second for Rob to see who he was talking to. It was a young girl, probably fourteen or fifteen, sitting against a wall. She was lethargic. Maybe she was sick, probably she was wasted.
“Bring her to me.”
“No,” said Rob.
The boy looked at him, face completely emotionless. Rob struggled not to move. Muscles strained and tensed hard enough to hurt.
The boy rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said. The pull on Rob stopped. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Don’t!” Robert grabbed the boy’s arm. It felt the way Rob imagined an eel would feel: cold, wet, and slick, despite the fact that it looked completely dry. The boy slipped out of his grip and backed away.
"You will not interfere." The voice was no longer the voice of a man. The voice was that of something big. Something deep and old and terrible and great and absolutely horrifying. The words were spoken matter-of-factly, and the sheer weight behind them, the force in the voice, held Rob frozen in his place.
"This goes far beyond what you could possibly imagine."
With that, the boy stepped past and went to the girl.
She had to have seen the knife, it was right there in his hand, but she didn’t move. Rob didn’t know if it was because she was too far gone on her own, or if the boy was using the same freezing trick on her. The boy lightly touched her face, examined her eyes. Then, he suddenly pulled her hair. She yelped and whimpered. In the yellowed street light, Rob could see tears starting to streak her face. Satisfied, the boy gently held up her head and, in one fluid motion, stabbed her chest. The move was too perfect. The boy had to have practiced.
Or, thought a small, treacherous voice in the back of Rob's head, he's done this so many times before he doesn't need practice.
Rob watched helplessly as the boy carved open the dying girl's chest and cut out her heart. With a look of euphoria, he brought the bloody lump to his mouth and took a bite. It was gone shortly after. Rob stared, numb with shock.
The boy wiped the blood that was dribbling down his face and gave Rob what might've been a look of pity. "This is more than just her," he said. "There will always be sacrifices."
"What are you?" Rob finally choked out.
The boy didn't answer and instead looked up at the sky.
From the moment he'd cut into the girl, clouds had been gathering overhead. Thick, black clouds that rumbled with thunder and were full to bursting. Within seconds, it began to rain. Somewhere in the distance, sirens started to wail. Robert wondered if that was the back up the agent had been expecting, or if somebody had finally called in the wreck from earlier.
“Thank you,” the boy said, smiling. “This will do, for now.” Lightning struck, this time hitting the boy directly. Whatever hold the boy had on Robert vanished, and he toppled forward, his back screaming in pain. When he was able to look up again, the boy was nowhere to be seen.
The sirens were getting closer.
They’re gonna trace my car, he thought. The car and that dead agent. I stole his car. I didn’t kill that girl, but I didn’t save her. And I can’t feel my legs.
All of this should have bothered Rob, and he had the feeling it definitely would bother him later, but for now, he was tired. He closed his eyes and the world went dark.