“Ye did not mention thy sire.”
Ash glanced up from the gas station map he’d sprawled out over the dash. He’d managed to stain it with Slushee somehow, and he had to double-darken the pathway off of Route Eighty onto the towline that led him back to Elk Grove. “Yeah well – wasn’t a good time to bring up the old man,” he said. Not, Ash thought to himself arrogantly, while he was saving the world and looking good doing it. “What with all of the saving of your kingdom and butt I was doing back then.”
Sheila’s reaction to his response was a shrug. She took another suck from her bottle of Faygo. “Tis indecent that ye did not bring him up afore we pledged our troth.”
Ash eyed the rise of Sheila’s stomach and felt a quick stab of guilt. “Baby, this isn’t the thirteen hundreds. You don’t’ have to ask him for my hand in marriage or some kind of archaic primitive shit like that.” She pouted and yeah, there was another good old stab of guilt to the gut, hot and sharp. “All right,” he grumbled. “Maybe I was a little harsh or something.”
“Maybe?” she echoed flatly.
“Right, that’s what I said, maybe!” He tapped the steering wheel as she refocused on the road ahead. Sheila rolled her eyes and reached for the animal crackers he’d bought her at the airport. There was an awfully long drive between the airport and Ash’s father’s home. She was starving even after their large mid-flight meal.
“Are you okay?” He asked this of the road.
She nodded, placed a hand on her belly.
“The kid?” he asked.
“Active, and I’m certain well too.”
Ash eyeballed Sheila’s stomach for the millionth time since they’d started this trip and she heaved a sigh. “I shall now eat the crackers in peace. Tell me when we arrive at thy father’s abode.”
Ash watched her sparingly as they drove up the long, endless highways to his tiny hometown. Sheila had drifted off into a nap by the time he pulled up to the old clapboard house that contained most of his childhood memories.
He shook Sheila awake gently, and together their retrieved their two suitcases from the back of the car. He traveled light – they both did, knowing this wasn’t home and that all directions pointed somewhere else once the two of them settled affairs with Ash’s father. Sheila seemed small, submissive behind Ash as he knocked on the door and waited, leaning against the doorjam.
The man who answered was imposing; Ash’s height, with heavy brow and a direct, piercing gaze. Sheila shrunk back slightly under his probing stare; Ash automatically stepped in front of her and lifted his chin, pinning his father down with his eyes.
The man’s eyes turned steely. “Are you talking to me, kid? I don’t have a son. Or I used to. He died out in the woods a few months ago…”
“Come on, dad, you asked me to…”
“….You may be able to fool that court, boy, but you’ll never fool your old man.”
Sheila could feel the tension in the air – it was enough to convince her to intercede on Ash’s behalf. She pushed her way around Ash’s stiff, unyielding form. “Father Williams, please let me beseech you on Ashley’s behalf…”
Ash’s father stared at Sheila’s stomach and raised an eyebrow. His eyes were kind when they took in Sheila’s face, but hard and unforgiving as he looked at Ash’s guilty features. “Course you did,” he muttered, and let Sheila and Ash enter the quiet of the house proper.
“I’ve got one question, pop,” Ash said, pushing away a box of dusty magazines that had apparently been moldering since the Regan era in the back of the garage, “why did mom collect People Magazines? Did she just like celebrities or what?”
“Beats the shit out of me,” Brock muttered, popping a potato chip into his mouth. He haunted the garage like a wraith, watching over everything Ash did. Ash glowered at Brock and tossed another pile of the stuff into a garbage bag.
“Y’know, you could get off your ass and help me,” he complained.
“Bum knee,” he said. “You know it acts up when it rains.”
“Right,” Ash said shortly, then picked up the boxes and carried them toward the trash. Most of this junk had been sitting around since their mother’s untimely passing, and he was more than happy to heave ho it all out with the trash. Everything was a fucking mess and his father kept talking about everything he wanted to keep.
Sheila hovered in the kitchen, trying to pull together a chicken salad sandwich for the three of them. Ash had actually tried to contribute something – he’d toasted bread, poured canned lemonade into pitchers, tried to ask her if she was nauseous only to be met with a grunt and a gentle shove in the direction of the door.
Well, if that was how she felt about it….
Now that everything had been sorted he herded his father into the living room. Ash picked up a deck of cards and passed them to his father. “Here, deal,” he demanded, before gabbing the trash again and carrying it out to the back of the house.
His father’s neighborhood was chockablock with teenagers; he could hear them calling to one another as they rode by.
That was why he didn’t notice those eerie lights coming from what was once the Johnson’s basement until it was rather too late.
There was a throbbing in Ash’s temples – and it wasn’t because of his fall, thankfully. He knew that dangerous beat far too well. Someone was playing punk music, and while under normal circumstances he’d be absolutely thrilled to dance along to the beat right now he was angry enough to protest the ridiculous circumstances that had made him fall over his neighbor’s fence and right in front of their grimy, creamy-colored spotlight-filled garage.
“Hey,” he yelled and winced as his voice cracked, “uh…can someone give me a hand up?” Why did he pick those particular words? They were, inevitably, always the wrong ones to say. Once his vision reoriented himself he realized he’d stuck his head into an open basement window, and that there were three people practicing in its belly.
“Yo, Ru – do you have a prowler ish?” that voice came from the man seated behind the drum set, with tall hair and a nervous expression.
“We don’t have prowlers in this town. We barely have a car dealership that doesn’t give out Jon Deeres.” The woman in front of him was older, elegant, had longish blond-red hair and was holding on to the microphone like it was a weapon.
The black-haired guitarist eyed him like he was a roach. “Should I call the cops or cut him?”
“Neither.” Ru knelt down beside Ash as he got to his feet. “Are you Brock’s boy?” She said it so slowly and deliberately that humiliation actually colored his ears.
“Yeah,” Ash grumbled. “Why the hell are you talking to me like I don’t understand what you’re saying?”
“Oh,” said Ru. “He told me that you were…having problems the other day after the cabin incident.”
“Great. My dad’s telling people I’m nutzoid.” He eyeballed Ruby. “Okay, I know this makes me sound like an asshole…”
The guitarist snorted.
“…But who the hell are you and what happened to Old Lady Madison?”
“Well, she died, and Kelly’s her granddaughter. She moved in a few months ago, and we’re her backup band.”
“The Cherry B-Bombs,” said the drummer. “The fourth best Runaways cover band in northern Michigan.”
“Cool,” Ash said, in a way that suggested the entire situation wasn’t cool. “Look, I’m sorry for ruining your rehearsal. I just heard some noises and thought I’d check them out.”
Ru’s eyebrow quirked. “Right. Well, you’re welcome to listen…”
“Not gonna happen,” Ash said. “I’ve gotta be getting back to my dad’s place, I mean. I’m over there helping him clear out my uh…some stuff. So I don’t really have a lotta time to chit-chat.”
“Of course,” Ru remarked. “Well, we’ll be breaking up in an hour.”
“I’ve got a D&D game in five,” the drummer said.
“Oh my God, Pablo,” complained, Kelly, flicking her curls back over her shoulder. “You’re still paying with Justin?”
“He needed a paladin and Jose the Mighty needed a place to play!”
“Right,” said Ash. “Gonna be going now…”
“See you around, dude,” Kelly said, without looking back at him, “Pablo, I told you to stop hanging around with Justin. He’s totally using you for your stash.”
“You can’t rule me, Kel. Nobody can! I’m my own Jefe,” said Pablo.
“Please stop arguing and let us finish this song,” said Ru. “Ash, do you need anything for your knee.”
“No, but…” he pivoted, raised an eyebrow. “How did you know what my name was?”
“Your father told me. Many times. Usually combining it with the description ‘my screw up son’.”
“Oh. Again, no thanks. I’ve gotta go check on my lady. See you around,” he added, as an afterthought.
“Right,” Ru said. “Um – I Love Playing With Fire, from the top!”
Ash walked away from his neighbor’s house, over the fenceline, still embarrassed to have tripped and smacked his head on the pavement. The bass chased him back inside, where his father was waiting for him.
“Madison’s grand-niece up to her old tricks?” Brock was blasting a repeat of Airwolf at top volume.
“Yeah,” Ash said.
“She’s a funny one. Got a tattoo of that Joan Jett broad on her ass.”
“…I don’t want to know how you know that.” Brock grinned. “I’m gonna put some shit on this bump. Where’s Sheila?”
“Upstairs napping, and no cursing under my roof.”
“Right, Dad,” Ash said, rolling his eyes. He followed the pathway down to his old room – and noticed that his sister’s remained quietly untouched.
That was an emotion he’d deal with later. Right now, he wanted to hang out with the mother of his child. That she was sleeping meant no different – he put a cold compress on his abraded forehead and then tucked himself into bed beside her.
She smiled and stirred in her dreams, both arms coming around his waist. The anchor of her touch was enough to make him happy.
He didn’t wake up until his father appeared at the door, telling them Madison’s grand-niece was at the door with a pizza.
And Ash didn’t have the will to get rid of her.
Ash meets Kelly.
“So you’re the new guy.”
The girl eyeballed him, sitting there in her punk rock shirt, staring at him as if he were the scum of the earth.
“Hey, I lived here before you were a squeaky drop of joy in your dad’s balls.” Ash winced at his own choice of words. “In other words, I’ve got senority.”
“Right. Has your dad ever told you that if you leave the bedroom light on everyone on the block can see you?”
“Right.” Ash leaned against the doorframe. “So why are you really here?”
“Told you. Grandmother wanted to give your dad some pizza. I think she has a thing for him.”
“I don’t want to imagine my dad having a ‘thing’ for anyone but go on,” Ash said.
“So uh…there are stories about you,” she said to his feet.
“Right,” Ash said flatly. “Look, that cherry bomb flushed itself on graduation day…”
“Not what I was talking about,” said Kelly. “The whole…cabin thing,” she said. “Rumor has it you faced down evil and kicked its ass.”
“Woah look, it wasn’t…actually no, it kind of was like that. But that’s in the past. I’m just trying to forget it and move on with my life.”
“You saved the world. And probably fucked it up a little.” She added. “See, my band and I aren’t just a band. A couple of weeks ago somebody started yelling and floating in the aisle at the place where I work…”
“S-Mart?” Ash winced.
“No, Value Stop.”
“…What kind of stupid name is that for a store?”
“Regardless, when the police took it out it kept moving. My friend Pablo – the drummer – he thinks there’s something going on. If all of the rumors link up and point to you – then you’re the only one who can stop those things from taking over the planet.”
Ash’s jaw firmed. “You came to the wrong house,” he said. “There ain’t anyone here who can help you with that stuff. Whatever happened to me – that’s in the past. I’ve got a wife and family to think of.”
“What better reason to back us up?”she asked.
Ash shook his head. “Forget about it. I’ve got to go look in on my wife.” He stood up and watched his father enter the room.
“I have to apologize for my boy. He’s been a little tetchy since his sister’s passing.”
“Don’t do a damned thing for me,” Ash said. “I’m going upstairs.”
When he got there, his wife was sleeping still.
“Mm,” she remarked. “Is thy father well?”
“Yeah,” Ash said. He took off his shoes and locked the door. “Neighbor’s over. Brought him some pizza, so he’s set for a late dinner.”
And then Sheila went back to sleep. The baby was taking a lot out of her, and he worried about that sometimes.
Fast asleep, sleeping without moving, was a model for his well being and state of mind. As Ash curled up around he, he thought to himself that he really ought to follow her example.
For once, his sleep was untroubled.
Ash talks with Sheila, Brock gets Testy and Pablo asks Ash for a favor.
He woke up to the sound of his father cursing in the hallway.
Ash groaned, rubbed his brow, and rolled toward the noise. Sheila was sitting in the chair beside the bed, eating a bowl of oats and sipping from a mug of tea. The sight of his eyes training upon her face lit her whole expression up.
“Baby, did you try to cook breakfast?” he asked. His father was yelling about the smell of something burning. Ash didn’t want to know more but well, he couldn’t help hearing.
She smiled. “I didst.” She frowned. “Though I don’t know why thy father was angered by my use of his bubbling water vessel for my tea this morning. Twas the only vessel I saw of proper use for boiling water.”
Ash groaned, rubbing at his throbbing temples. Of course. “That ain’t a cauldron,” he said. With a sigh, he leaned over and pecked her on the lips before straightening his spine. It creaked alarmingly. Great. He was barely thirty and he was falling apart.
“I saw ye wounded,” she said, with some remonstration in her tone. “What wert thy up to in thy gamboling last night?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Saw my dad’s neighbor’s band. They were practicing so loud, I’m surprised you didn’t hear.”
She smiled. “The babe hath provided its own need for quiet.”
“Yeah,” Ash murmured, staring at her belly as if it might implode. He went back to dressing himself, splashing cologne on his body to hide the evening’s sweat.
She sighed. “Ye should become accustomed to it. It shall not, I pray, be leaving us any time soon.”
Ash gave her a tremulous smile. “Yeah. It’s just a lot. A lot to think about.”
“Mmm,” she said. Finishing off her oatmeal, she gathered the dishes and made for the outside world. “Shall ye join me? I shall wash while ye eat.”
“Hey, let me do the dishes,” he said. “You’ve worked hard enough.”
“Oh,” she flushed. “Aye, that would be lovely. Thank thee.”
“You’re welcome.” He let Sheila use the bathroom first, then used it, shaved, and washed up. They were soon dressed and ready to face the world.
Or specifically his father, who confronted Ash the second they hit the kitchen.
“Ash, your gal…”
“There was forty grams of…”
“FORTY grams?!” Ash asked. “Pop, what are you doing? Running a dispensery?”
“That’s not a question I’m willing to answer,” he growled. “Fill your belly, we’ve got work to do.”
“Right,” Ash grumbled. He dished up Sheila’s oatmeal and some milk and coffee and juice for himself. And as much bacon as he could get away from his dad. By the time they made it back to the garage, they were both so sick of each other that decisions suddenly became very easy to make for Brock.
Ash didn’t bother to question it. He just kept his nose to the grindstone.
“How many bowling balls do you have?” He wondered, sounding vaguely alarmed. There seemed ot be an endless parade of the things coming out of the back of the garage.”
“Your mom had a thing for them. Said my volley was cute,” he added.
“Hah. Thanks for the mental image,” Ash muttered. The balls were added to the impressive haul they were taking in to the consignment shop. “So what do you think we should do with the magazines?”
“Told you; I’m keeping them for something special,” Brock grumbled.
Suddenly, a man in a tan jacket, baseball teeshirt, worn jeans and sneakers bustled up to them nervously. “Uh, may I speak to Ash in private?”
It took him a minute to realize who the speaker in question was. “Oh yeah, Pablo, sure…lemme just put these down.” He locked the back of the hatchback and followed the kid.
He instantly swept Ash aside. “We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Major problem.”
“Uh…what would that be? Is it ‘cause I left the trashcans in the middle of the street? I had to hose them out, my dad has a tub of mustard in the back of that thing…”
“No no! It’s the Dark Ones. They’re coming back…” Pablo swallowed hard and added, “and we need a new keyboardist to beat them in the battle of the bands.”
Brock suggests that he and Ash clean out Cheryl's room.
“Okay, who the hell told you I play piano?” Ash asked. “Scratch that – USED to play Piano?” He wiggled his fingers at Pablo, who gulped and tried not to look overtly nervous.
“Your dad,” he squeaked, then coughed. “Uh, he had us over for beer and pizza sometimes…”
“My dad? The guy who hated it when I played Led Zepplein too loud?”
Pablo nodded. “He really likes Kelly,” he said. “And her grandma. He’s got like, a sick boner for her or something…”
“Please shut up,” Ash grunted.
“Anywya, Kels is pretty convinced that that woman who had a seizure at our shop was possessed by something, so she went to your dad but he didn’t have answers.”
“Huh,” Ash remarked. “Do you think she’s full of shit, too?”
“Don’t talk about Kelly like that!” he said sharply, then his neck flushed at Ash’s knowing look.
“So you’ve got the squirts for her, eh?”
“Don’t tell her,” he whimpered.
“I’ll think about it,” Ash said. Their little dramas weren’t of any importance to him but it was always fun to have leverage.
“So are you gonna join us?”
“I’ll think about it,” Ash said. He didn’t even know if he could play piano anymore. “See you around. I’ve got some bowling balls to dump.”
When Ash returned from his trip to Goodwill, Sheila was knitting. Sitting beside the living room window, when Ash looked at her sitting there in the light he looked at the rest of the room entirely, and immediately noticed that the living room was remarkably cleaner than it had been since he last entered it. “Don’t work so hard,” he ordered, kissing her brow.
“T’was no trouble,” she said. “I but wished to smooth the way.”
“Pop didn’t yell at you?”
She shook her head. “He was rather sweet, in truth.”
“Huh. At least he’s being nicer.” He sat down beside her with a sigh and rested his hand against Sheila’s belly. The child shifted against Ash’s hand, pressing once and roiling until Sheila patted it.
“Ye must ever put on tumbling shows for thy sire.” She complained.
“Hey, if I were that kid I’d be showing off too. He’s got great genes and a will to survive, which is all he’s gonna need to go far in this world.”
“Mmm,” remarked Sheila. “But if she’s a girl?”
“Then she’ll have me kicking ass for her. And hey, I’m no chauvinist…” she eyeballed him. “Okay fine, maybe I am a chauvinist. A little bit. But only because I wanna protect you. But if it’s a she I will support whatever she wants.”
Sheila snuggled into his side.
Ash full-body shuddered at the sound of his own full name. “Yeah, Pop?”
“I thought I’d go air out Cheryl’s room a little. Come with me?”
Ash didn’t need to look at his father to know that he was suffering – that even, on some level, he was a bit afraid of what was going to greet him. But he kissed Sheila one more time and got up out of the chair.
“Sure, dad.” He realized too late he’d called him dad. The weight of the moment was getting to both of them.
The hallway was impossibly cold. Ash didn’t remember it feeling like this, even during the most bitter Michigan winter. Ash leaned against the hallway, casually, as his father unlocked the door to Cheryl’s room.
When it opened he had to blink against the stream of lamplight pouring in from the light. There it all was – her art stuff. Her cassettes. The smell of her drugstore perfume.
“I’ll…start cleaning out the closet,” said Brock. He moved toward it with a heavy sigh and pulled it open. Ash stood by awkwardly. He made a move toward the desk and put a hand on one of Cheryl’s notepads.
“Don’t touch her pencils…” Brock said, without looking up.
“Don’t. Touch. Her. Pencils.” He threw the garbage bag filled with her clothing at Ash. “You want to help, go move these down to the car.”
“Fine. I just…I wanted something…”
Brock’s eyes were cold and blue, and they pierced Ash sharply. “Do you think you deserve that?”
Ash bit the inside of his cheek. Did he? Of course he fucking did! He was her brother, and he’d saved the world. And he hadn’t really hurt Cheryl – she’d sort of melted all over him. That had been a fun thing to explain to the cops.
Ash left the room without a word. He transported clothing and avoided Tablet (“No, it’s Pablo – see, my name’s on my vest!”) as he waited on the porch. He sat down behind the wheel of the Delta and took a deep breath. His life probably wouldn’t get any stranger than this, any crueler than this. Or so he hoped.
Then a voice came from the back seat. “Hey, Ashley.”
He whipped around. And in the middle seat – just as she’d always been, sitting in one of her many mock-bohemian outfits – was Cheryl. She was watching him expectantly, and he felt a streak of hysteria fill him.
She shrugged and tried to smile. “I’m…home?” she asked.
Ash had but one reply to that.
He screamed. A manly scream that didn’t cause him to flail and accidentally knock himself out at all.
She was still there when he woke up. Because of course she was. Because nothing in his life could ever go normally, or go well, or even go.
“If I could pick up a glass of water, I would’ve poured it over your head,” she said cheerfully enough. Ash made a grumbling noise and stirred, sitting up slowly. “Are you okay, Ashley?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“Yeah…that’s kind of a pattern.”
He winced. “Uh…no offense, Cheryl, but why the hell are you haunting this house?”
“Well…after my soul escaped from hell…which by the way is way harder than it sounds, just ask your lady…”
“..I don’t have to ask her. Did it myself.”
“Right,” she said. “…After I escaped I got stuck haunting the cabin for awhile, but after the cops left no one’s been down there. I guess it’s that Pet Semetary thing – the ground’s sour.”
“Yeah. I dunno who got the cabin with all of the Knowbys kinda…dead.” Ash gulped. “So it’s really you? Not some kinda fucking weirdo trick.”
“As someone who knows all about those tricks – by now I would’ve tried to rip your tongue out.”
“Yeah, right.” Ash wasn’t going to let down his guard, not even with that kind of reassurance. “So, you just…decided to come here?”
“I don’t know how it works,” she said. “But yes. I kind of willed myself here.”
“Have you shown yourself to dad?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want him to have a heart attack. It’s not his time to join me on the other side.”
He didn’t want to ask the obvious question – when was he due to cross over? Instead, he said. “Um…anything I can do to help you?”
She shook her head. “I’m happy where I am.”
Ash felt a little guilty about that. “So you don’t care if we get rid of your shit?”
She shrugged. “I can’t use it, Ashley.” There was a knock on the door. Cheryl disappeared before his eyes. Ash coughed. “Uh…come in?”
Sheila peeked into the room. “There is a man at the front door with a pitcher of pink libation in hand. He said his name art Chet and he knew ye as a youth?”
Of course. “Great,” he said. “Uh. Tell him I’ll be with him in a minute. And whatever you do, don’t drink any of the stuff he brought.” A minute for Chet was like forty years to a normal person. Ash figured that gave him extra time.
With Chet, he needed it.
“Hey, dude, do you think I could do a bong hit out of Cheryl’s urn?”
Ash could feel his face screwing up in repulsion in response to Chet’s guileless question. “No, you can’t get high off of my sister’s ashes.”
Chet squinted at him. “You used to be way cooler than this, man.”
“I was never cool,” Ash pointed out. He had been kind of a background dick, but he’d been too quiet, nerdy and inexperienced to be too much of dickhole. Unlike Chet and Scotty, who had once conducted a panty raid in the middle of second period gym class.
“So,” Chet said, stretching out his arms, “you’re marrying the lady with the dark hair making soup in the kitchen? What happened to Linda?”
“Chet, you were at her funeral last week. You asked her mom if you could have her Camero for spare parts. You made the woman cry!”
“Oh yeah. Bad times,” Chet remarked, whistling. “I thought you were tying the knot ‘cause you knocked her up.”
Ash’s features shriveled. “Jesus Christ,” he grunted.
“Dude, am I uh…not supposed to notice?”
“No, but you don’t have to fuckin’ say it,” he complained.
“Ohhh.” He smiled over-brightly when Sheila handed him a cup of tea. “YOU LOOK NICE!”he said broadly.
Ash’s pained smile was ignored by his fiancée. She instead got her arms around his shoulder and gave him a hug. “Thy father is napping,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess unpacking everything to the dump took a lot out of him,” Ash remarked. “So uh – Chet and I go way back,” he said. “We went to high school together.” Sheila looked moderately confused by his use of the word ‘high school’ but nodded.
“Thee were playmates as whelps,” she said.
“Basically,” Ash said.
“So how do you like Michigan?” Chet was drinking his tea, his eyes darting around the room.
“It art very strange – though less strange than my own home might be to others, I suppose,” she said.
“Oh yeah, things can get wild here! I mean, I once saw Ash bazooka barf all over old Missus Rodemicher’s car during Field Day…”
“Switch. The. Subject,” Ash snapped.
“Uh…” Chet wiped his forehead. “Uh…did I ever tell you me and Cheryl were a thing?!”
“The hell?!” Ash snapped.
“oops?” Chet said, sinking into his seat.
“Sheila,” Ash said. “Do me a favor. Keep an eye on this clown…I have to have a conversation with my sister’s closet.”
“YOU DID THE HORIZONTAL WATUSI WITH CHET?!”
Cheryl glared at him. “Ashley, stop making a scene,” she demanded. “It was…ugh, it was complicated but I don’t have to explain it to you, since I happen to be an adult – a dead adult, but still an adult.”
“So what!” Ash said. “Just ‘cause you’ve grown up doesn’t mean I’m cool with you going all backseat Betty with my best friend!”
She pouted at him. “If you’re going to be a pill about this,” she said, “I’m going to stop appearing to you.”
“Fine!” Their conversation was cut off by a decisive crash from the living room. Ash ran toward the noise.
Which thankfully wasn’t caused by a demon.
But the spirit glimmering beside his father’s bed didn’t look like a promising foe either.