Adriana Priest’s hazel eyes flashed with frost as she brushed honey hair, long to her shoulders and severely straight, past her ear with a nervous impatient flick of her fingers. Below her on the motel bed was herself, sleeping fitfully in a spreading puddle of necklaces, eyes dancing under lids.
She fingered her only adornment, a simple gold cross, twisting it spitefully. Looking at this other caused deep anger, like a leaden pain settling into her chest. Who was this woman to cut her hair so short, to stain half of it white with fear, to smudge her eyes with pink shadow, to gnaw her nails down until her fingertips were bloody? She was a thief of trust funds. She was a destroyer of luxury and comfort and privilege.
My nails are perfect, she thought. Maybe this one would like it if I punched one right through her fucking skull.
Adriana woke. For a moment reality was strange and sleep-blurred. She touched her head where for an instance she had felt sharp pain from a pointed manicured nail piercing skin.
“Goddess. Not this shit again.” She raised herself and rubbed her neck. Chibi hovered close by, her mask of surprise fixed on the spot where Adriana was sitting.
“Oh,” Chibi said. “Oh, oh, oh.”
Adriana figured the little ghost had seen her dream and was upset by it. “It’s OK, sweetie. Sometimes I have this recurring nightmare of myself. How I used to be.”
“Oh,” Chibi said. “Oh, oh!”
“Yeah. You know, I wonder if this other self doesn’t exist in some alternate reality, and dreams of me as… this multi-hair colored, Mehndi-ed, witchy, freaky person. She probably wakes up drenched in sweat, clutching her copy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”
Chibi was in fact aware of Adriana’s dream, after a fashion, but that wasn’t what agitated her. She could sense the Gut Eater nearing. It was a dozen miles out and closing on their position rapidly.
Adriana stretched and yawned. “Well, let’s see if our ‘friends’ at The Agency left us a new cube.”
She unchained the door and opened it. Beyond was a horseshoe parking lot and central swimming pool, a configuration familiar from countless nights spent at other roadside motels. On the ground was a female doll, legs bent to allow it to sit flat, and in the lap of its lacy blue dress was a featureless black cube about the size of Adriana’s palm. One half of the doll’s face was burned and its hair was melted into blackened stubble.
She retrieved the cube and shut the door on the doll. This is the way it had gone for the past week.
Her sponsorship arrangement with The Agency specified that she carry one of these black boxes (or was it the same black box?) with her throughout the day, and dispose of it somewhere off the beaten path before midnight. Each day she did this she’d receive $500 for her trouble.
She sat on the bed and accessed her bank account using her phone. When she had arrived in Michigan a lifetime ago, her saving account had $140. Now her balance was a bit over $2,500. The daily stipend from The Agency allowed her to stay at cheap motels, eat regularly, and use ride services to get from place to place. Not long ago she was wondering how she was going to survive; now she had the freedom to go where, and do what, she wanted.
She wasn’t entirely comfortable with her relationship with The Agency though.
For one thing, she didn’t get into Shriexing because she was wild about authority. She was on a leash to this group about which she knew next to nothing, and she didn’t like it.
Then there were the dolls.
Every morning when the black box was returned to her it was always in proximity to a female doll. And those dolls were always mutilated in some way, with missing limbs or eyes, nails driven into their torsos, burned like the one this morning, or even displaying multiple stab wounds.
Moreover, she was seeing similar dolls, and mannequins and other female figures, secreted everywhere as she went about her travels. They watched her from within dense thickets, from atop gas station roofs, and behind windows of abandoned buildings. Once when she got up from her spot at a diner to use the restroom, there was a folded drawing of a mutilated woman under her plate when she returned.
She turned the cube over. She sniffed it. Last night she tossed the old one into a murky pond behind the motel; this one in her hands had no smell. Was it new, or the same cube from last night, cleaned and recycled?
She assumed the cube was a recording device of some sort, collecting readings wherever she went on the intense supernatural phenomena of the Rust Belt Mega Phenomena. If that was the case, then she was giving The Agency its money’s worth. In the past week she had observed many strange things.
Every day she saw UFO activity. The night skies in particular were aflame with streaking lights, hovering orbs, and cigar-shaped craft lazily trolling midnight clouds.
Two evenings ago she saw several skeletal figures, swaddled in sheets that were visibility pus-yellow even under the shade of dim stars, trooping single file across an empty field toward a long windrow speckled with flickering witch lights.
Walking a lonely country road two days ago, she smelled a terrible animalistic barnyard stink, and for the next two miles was stalked by glimpses of matted brown-black fur, and paws that reached from behind the corners of abandoned barns and sheds to gouge at the bleached wood.
Yesterday the sky opened with a tremendous roar and a thunderbird streaked across the sky, lightning sparking from its wings while she clapped and cheered.
In the evenings, she posted accounts of these adventures to Shriexing forums in the Dark Web, and from those same sources she learned that nearly every Shriexing group in the country had abandoned their summer targets and descended on a rust belt state. Even traditional ghost hunter teams, the kind that dealt in phenomena no more threatening than orbs and cold air spots, had finally noticed that something unusual was happening and were arriving on scene. The region was one big supernatural party.
Except for Team Mwerte, she thought. Not much of a party there.
Her former team failed its second run at Stumpy yesterday, where the day before SoPSIity had successfully baited the one-armed slasher to the first checkpoint.
Was it possible to have the time of your life, while at the same time being utterly miserable? The Rust Belt Mega Phenomena was the most exciting paranormal event she had yet encountered, but to experience it this way had meant abandoning her friends and ruining their season.
Her phone rang and she answered flatly. “Hello, this is Adriana.”
“How long have you been in Michigan, and why hasn’t anyone called to let me know of your arrival?”
She held the phone away from her face to curse under her breath. “Father Jonas! Delightful. To hear from you.”
“Answer my question, Adriana. I’ve learned your team has been in state for more than two weeks. I was explicit in my instructions that one of you was to contact me immediately upon your arrival. Explain yourself. Better yet, put Mr. Tremble on the phone. I’ll deal with him directly.”
“Ah… well. So here’s the thing. The thing is, I’m not with Team Mwerte anymore. I left the team last month.”
“What? What nonsense is this?”
“It’s my nonsense, Father. With all due respect, your sponsorship arrangement was with Team Mwerte, so I suggest contacting them directly.”
“I’ve tried. They aren’t answering.”
Shocker, she thought.
He sighed. “All right. You’re the best one of the bunch anyway, so you’ll do. I want you in my office at the earliest possible hour. I have a… situation here, and it is getting worse.”
“Father. I told you. I’m not—”
“I heard what you told me, and I don’t release you from your obligations simply because you’ve had a snit with the other anarchists.”
“I’m at the bottom of the state! It’ll take, what, at least five hours to get to you! Six, seven hours. I’ll have to change ride shares multiple times.”
“Then I suggest you get on the road soon. I need you here today. I’ll compensate you for your travel expenses. Just… I need your help, Adriana. It’s serious.”
She mouthed several choice words. “OK Father. You’ll see me before the day is out. Good?”
“Come straight to the church when you arrive in town. Don’t dawdle.” He hung up.
You’re welcome, she thought.
She showered quickly and did her other toiletries, and afterward summoned a Lyft driver using her phone app. Gathering up her things meant slinging Chibihome and her backpack over her shoulders. Her rideshare pulled into the lot just as she finished turning in her key at the front desk.
“I need to go to Rogers City,” she told the driver. “Can you take me as far as you can, then drop me off somewhere populated where I can call the next ride?”
“I can go as far as Ann Arbor,” he said. His eyes darted down her body and up again, and she shrank, her shoulders hunching. He seemed to notice and straightened his gaze. “Will that work?”
Chibi was repeating “Oh!” and even nipping at Adriana’s arms, which felt like light kisses. The driver couldn’t see or hear the ghost.
Adriana wished she was invisible like Chibi.
“Housekeeping.” Silvia reached to knock on the door of Adriana’s room. She was on autopilot as she pushed her heavy cart into position with her other hand, her thoughts on the party she was to attend later that evening. Raul was going to be there. But so was Verónica, and that could mean drama. It wasn’t her fault that Raul favored her over Verónica. Verónica was a bitch.
“House… keep…” She slowly drew her hand back. The door was shredded, as if someone had attacked it with a long pair of hedge trimmers. The doorknob was missing – strike that, it was there in the lot by the tire of a camper van, crushed nearly flat.
The curtains parted in the window one room over, and a pale, terrified face with wild eyes peered at Silvia for a glimpse before the curtains shut again.
Silvia turned her attention back to the ravaged door. It was opening by itself. She backed away until her legs met the hood of the car parked behind her. Something was in the room, a hunched shadow, something that stank like nothing she’d ever experienced. It was deep in the room, in the morning dark, surrounded by carnage. Everything had been destroyed, the bed gutted, nightstands reduced to splinters.
“I missed her,” the thing spoke. Its voice seemed to come from the windpipes of several devils. “I missed her by seconds!”
Silvia tried to push her way backward through the car.
The thing came closer. She saw rotten fur and bone teeth and thrashing scorpion stingers. “I need to eat her intestines. Do you understand? I need her guts. I need them!” And then it threw something at her, something that landed at her feet: it was a broken, burned doll.
She screamed, thrashed her way around the car, and fled the motel on foot. She never returned, nor did she attend the party that night. It didn’t matter. Verónica got nowhere with Raul.