Archive for the 'I'm Dreaming of a White Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra' Category

04
Jan
10

I’m Dreaming of… – Part 2

Hello again.  Today we’re finishing off “I’m Dreaming of a White Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra.”  If you missed the first part you can read it here.  Also, as always, don’t forget that if you want more from the AS universe you can purchase the Apocalypse Shift novel at Amazon.  Remember that the print edition of Tales From the Apocalypse Shift, complete with a novelette that won’t be on the blog, is coming in 2010, so you may want to check out the novel before the next book is released.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

Derek J. Goodman

I’m Dreaming of a White Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra – Part 2

     If Caleb and Phil hadn’t been so insistent, Courtney would have just run out into the night searching blindly for any sign of what had happened to Holly.  On further thought that would have been idiotic, and probably would result in Holly vanishing off the face of the planet, but Courtney wasn’t happy either about doing it in a more sensible fashion.  Sensible meant waiting and preparing and putting plans into place and then waiting some more.  Courtney hated it, but she held her tongue.  Caleb and Phil were doing everything they could to help her, and by extension Holly. 

     Caleb made a phone call first, and Courtney paced in the back room (off the clock now, at Caleb’s insistence)while she waited.  Phil explained to her, when he wasn’t doing his nightly duties, that Caleb was talking to the same woman who had found all the Hollys in the neighborhood to start with.  If she could find them before, Caleb was certain she could find them again. 

     “You know,” Phil said to her, “if Wylma can find her, then there’s no reason you have to be the one to go after her.  We could try calling the special police…”

     “Gloria told me they’re slow as hell,” Courtney said.

     “Or there are all kinds of other people that could help.  Most of them probably have more experience than you do with this sort of thing.”

     “Have they headed rescue operations for people being tortured by psychotic turnips?”

     “Probably not, but around here you never can tell.”

     “I have enough experience.”

     “Okay, fine.  You can do it.  But other people can, too.  Why does it have to be you?  Really?”

     “None of your business,” Courtney said, but that was a question that had already crossed her mind.  This had grown personal for her, but she couldn’t say why.  She just felt better knowing she was doing something to help.  Other people might be able to find Holly, and they could probably do it without the possibility of being frightened away by someone’s salad.  But by making herself do this, Courtney felt like her life had some purpose and reason back in it.

     When he wasn’t helping customers, Phil helped her formulate something like a plan.  They kept various weapons and potions and things to help fight anything that might throw a tantrum in the store, but most of those weren’t designed to fight ordinary humans.  Phil gave her some daggers she would be able to easily conceal on herself, although he was uneasy with the possibility of her using them on normal people.  In Courtney’s mind they were nothing of the sort, and she didn’t think she’d have any trouble using deadly force if needed.  They were kidnappers and potential murderers, after all.  She really didn’t care if they were only doing it in the name of their religion. 

     Phil was also able to find a robe for her in back among some boxes of emergency supplies.  The basic idea was that, when they found where the cultists had Holly, Courtney could sneak in as one of them and get her out, hopefully without anyone knowing any wiser.

     “Why does this robe smell like skunk?” Courtney asked.

     “Got it off a former cultist of Bag-Hosra.  They all make themselves smell like that.”

     “But why?”

     “Not a clue.”

     When Caleb finally got a lead on Holly’s location, Courtney left the OneStop through the back door.  She didn’t want anyone seeing her leaving the store in the robe and possibly make the connection that someone out there tonight was not who she said she was.  Phil had given her as much knowledge as he had on the cultists, but it had been a lot to absorb and there was still a lot he didn’t know.  It would be enough, she hoped.

     Caleb’s friend had used the same locating spell as she had before to find Holly, and the young woman had apparently been moving southward towards the center of the Hill before finally coming to a stop.  A few other spells had been able to show that she wasn’t alone, so Courtney had likely been correct.  Someone had taken her. 

     Caleb had marked Holly’s location on a map for her, and as Courtney walked briskly in that direction she noticed a distinct change in the buildings around her.  She’d still seen the fancy former mansions at first, but they gave way more and more to apartment buildings, most of them looking kind of run down.  She still saw the festive and disturbing holiday decorations in some doors and windows, but they were far between around here. 

     Courtney had to double check the map against the actual location when she found it.  The apartment building was about three stories and made of red brick.  The bizarre rituals and beliefs had seemed to make more sense when paired with a more decedent architecture, but this place looked completely normal.  It didn’t even seem like it belonged on the Hill.

     Then she looked up and saw a girl in a Japanese school-girl uniform and a boy in a tuxedo and domino mask fly off the roof.  Yep, this place still belonged on the Hill.

     The front door was locked, but Phil had given her a tip how to get around that if she needed.  There was a panel of buttons to buzz each of the apartments off on the left side, and Courtney pressed the first one.  There were a few moments before someone answered through the intercom in a sleepy tone.  “Hello?”

     “I’m here for the ritual,” Courtney said.

     “Oh,” the voice said, suddenly with a note of fear in it.  “Um, sorry, wrong apartment.”  The intercom went silent.  Courtney tried the next apartment.

     “What?” a man’s voice said.

     “I’m here for the ritual.”

     “Bitch, fuck off!”

     Courtney continued going down the list, but most of them didn’t answer.  The mundies in the building were probably asleep, completely unaware that there might be a human sacrifice about to take place right now in the apartment down the hall.  After eleven tries, though, Courtney finally got the answer she’d been looking for.

     “Hello?”

     “I’m here for the ritual.”

     “Oh!  Well, you better hurry up.  We’ve already served the cheese and crackers and squidnog, but you’re just in time for the sacrifice.”

     The door buzzed, and Courtney opened it.  She wasn’t sure what disturbed her more, that Holly was only moments away from dying or that these people actually drank something called squidnog.

     The button she had pressed had been for apartment 2F.  She made her way up the stairs, moving as quickly as she could manage in the awkward robe, and went to the door.  Before she even knocked she could hear the sounds of voices from inside.  There seemed to be a lot of people, possibly more than she could take down if she had to fight.  But that didn’t seem like too terrible a prospect to her.  She could fight, and she didn’t much care what happened to her in the process.  It just felt good to be doing something for someone.  She really felt like she had a purpose at the moment.

     She knocked at the door.  It opened quickly to give Courtney a whiff of the most wretched odor.  Every single person in this place for some reason smelled like a skunk, and there were a lot of people.  “Oh, hi,” the man who opened the door said.  “Are you Bobbi’s friend she was saying might show up?”

     Courtney did her best not to sound nervous.  Acting had never been a strong suit for her, but she thought she would be okay as long as she kept cool.  “Um, yeah, Bobbi told me to come but as I was on my way I got a flat tire and then there was this giant man-eating piranha plant and it came up to me and was all like, ‘Hey, give me five-fifty,’ and I was like…”  She paused.  Maybe that wasn’t the right way to act.

     The man at the door stared at her, although it was hard for Courtney to see his expression from under his hood, but he stepped aside.  “Well, yeah.  You’ve got to be careful with man-eating plants.  Moochers, all of them.”  Courtney gave him a polite nod and entered, doing her very best not to wretch all over the front of her cloak at the smell.

     Someone handed her a glass and wished her a happy Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra.  She took the glass and almost took a drink out of it, then paused when she saw the glass’s contents.  It was a milk-like substance, except there were chunks of what might have been tentacles in it.  They even still seemed to be moving.  She set the glass down on the nearest surface and glanced around the room instead.

     They were in a living room, a decent sized one considering  the premium on space on the crowded Hill, but there wasn’t any typical living room furniture.  Instead there was a large block set on the floor, about one foot high and ten feet by ten feet in length and width.  There were three chains with manacles connected to it, and in the center there was circle drawn with arcane symbols inside.  There seemed to be dried blood on it.  Courtney caught her breath, afraid for a moment that she was too late, before she realized the blood was far too dark.  Possibly it was left over from the year before, but nothing had been killed on it yet tonight.

     Courtney let her hands go inside her robe to rest on the daggers hidden in her belt.  First she needed to find Holly among all this, then she needed to find a way out, but she didn’t quite care for now if she had to kill any of these scumbags in order to make it happen.  Just thinking of what they were planning made Courtney want to slice every one of their necks.  And then maybe go throw up.

     She looked for doors to other rooms, certain that Holly would be somewhere close by.  There were three doors off the living room, one leading to the kitchen, but she could see in there enough to know Holly wasn’t there.  That left the other two, which she assumed had to go to a bathroom and a bedroom.  Both of them were shut.  Keeping one hand on a dagger, Courtney made her way through the people to the nearest door and opened it.  She jerked back at the shriek as the door swung open.

     “Hey, occupied!” a guy inside said.  His mouth was smeared with lipstick, and he wasn’t alone.  A woman had him pinned up against the sink with her body pressed close to him.  With one hand she held something over both their heads.  Courtney only got a brief glimpse of it, but it looked like an old and rotten human toe.

     “Oops.  Uh, sorry,” Courtney said, quickly shutting the door.  She could feel her cheeks warm with embarrassment, but she wasn’t sure if a blush would show anymore given her skin’s new color.  Holly had to be beyond the other door, then.  Before she could go for it, however, someone in the center of the living room spoke up over the chatter of the people.

     “Okay, everyone, this is it,” the speaker said.  “Time to honor Bag-Hosra with this year’s sacrifice!” 

     The group cheered, and Courtney did her best to cheer along with them.  Her chance at getting Holly out of here without too much spectacle was gone.  She was going to have to grab the girl and get out of here, probably killing a whole lot of people along the way. 

     The man who had spoken up went to the bedroom door and placed his hand on the knob.  “Let’s welcome our sacrifice this year with the traditional song!” he said.  Someone in the crowd blew into a pitch pipe, and everyone began singing.  Courtney pulled one of the daggers out as the man opened the door.

     “Deck the halls with bowels of emu, fa la la la la…”

     Courtney paused.  Emu?

     The man went into the bedroom and came back out pulling on a rope.  At the other end an emu squawked, protesting at the rope around its neck, but it came out anyway.

     “Tis the season to be…”  The crowd faltered as no one could think of a word that rhymed with “emu,” but they didn’t let that stop them from going right into the next “fa la la las.”  Courtney looked at the sacrificial spot in the center of the room and suddenly realized why there were only three manacles.  One for each of the emu’s feet, one for its neck.  It had never been intended for human sacrifice at all.

     Courtney moved next to the guy who had let her in the door.  “Excuse me, I don’t understand.  Where’s Holly?”

     The cultist pulled back his hood, and for the first time she saw one of their faces.  He didn’t look like the scary human-killing cultist she had imagined.  He looked old and a little worn.  His eyes had a kind feel to them, but he looked hurt.

     “You’re not really a friend of Bobbi, are you?”

     The smart thing to do would be trying to maintain the charade, but Courtney didn’t think she could.  All of a sudden she felt alone and weak and pointless again.  “No.  I’m just…”

     “You just figured the Bag-Hosrians must be about to do something horrible because that’s what everyone says they do, right?  Well guess what?  Yeah, some Bag-Hosrians may be like that.  Those damned protester out there tonight, I wouldn’t put the whole “bowels of Holly” thing past them.  But you can’t judge all of us based on the actions of a few on the lunatic fringe.  We here are proud that we’re more modern than that.”

     “You’re more modern by sacrificing an emu and using its entrails to decorate your apartment?”

     “Get out,” the man said.  “Don’t you ever dare come back, either.”

     The man shoved her out the front door just as the song was coming to an end, and as the door closed Courtney could hear the squawk as a giant bird had things done to it that she didn’t want to imagine.  But she didn’t really care one way or the other about the bird.  All she could think about was that Holly was still out there somewhere, and she had failed her. 

     Courtney collapsed against a wall in the hall and held her head in her hands.  She thought about all the people she had known in her own world that had died.  She had watched some of them die and heard in gruesome detail what had happened to others.  She’d failed them all, and then took the cowardly way out of it all by escaping to another world.  She was weak and a failure, and that was all she could ever be from now on.  Now she had gone and failed Holly, too.  There was no telling where the poor girl had gone…

     Through all the terrible thoughts racing in her head, Courtney tried to force some reason into them.  Maybe she hadn’t failed anyone after all.  After all, unless Caleb’s friend had been mistaken, Holly was definitely somewhere in this building.  And if she wasn’t with any of the cultists, then there was a very good possibility she wasn’t really in danger after all.  Courtney had probably been overreacting this whole time.  That thought made her feel worse for a moment, the idea that everything that had happened to her had rendered her incapable of even thinking straight, but she had to push past it, at least in the moment.  She had to satisfy herself for now about what had actually happened to the young woman.  After that, then she could let her emotions take back over again.

     She stood back up and walked down the hall to the stairs, trying to figure out which apartment Holly might be in.  She could always just knock on every door until she found her, but there had to be an easier way that wouldn’t make sleepy mundies call the police on her.  The question, Courtney realized, was why Holly would be in this building if she hadn’t been dragged here by the cultists.  Maybe she just lived here.  Maybe she had simply gotten tired of waiting at a convenience store when she could be at home in bed.  She thought back to her conversation with the woman, trying to remember if she had mentioned where she lived.  She hadn’t, Courtney realized, not exactly, but she had mentioned something about a boyfriend.  She hadn’t seemed too pleased about him when she talked about him, either.

     Courtney went back down to the building’s front door, propped it open, and went back out to look at the buttons next to the intercom.   Most people had been sleeping.  Some had been women’s voices that clearly weren’t Holly.  One voice, though, a male, had clearly stood out at her.

     Courtney pressed the button and waited for a response.  “What?”

     “Is Holly there?”

     “I don’t know who the fuck you are, bitch, but go the fuck away!”

     “Just answer the question.  Is there a woman named Holly with you?”

     “No, now go the fuck away!”  But faintly, Courtney thought she could hear a woman’s voice calling out her name in the background.  Holly was calling for her help.

     Courtney went back inside, found the right room from the intercom, and kicked the door down.  For the next several minutes she felt like she had a purpose again.

*    *    *

     The OneStop was in the middle of a rush when she came back, but both Caleb and Phil stopped helping the line of customer in front of them to look up at her when she came through the door.

     “Did you find her?” Caleb asked.

     “Yeah, I found her,” Courtney said.  She couldn’t make her voice rise much above a whisper.

     “Did you… I mean was she…”  Phil didn’t finish his sentence, but Courtney knew what he wanted to know.  She thought about how Holly had looked when she had found the woman.  A black eye, bruises on her arms, but no broken bones. 

     “She’s alive,” Courtney said.  Her boyfriend was, too, but only because Holly had screamed at Courtney to stop before she had done anything too drastic.  Holly had explained that she had gone outside for a smoke and found her boyfriend there, begging her to come home.  He’d thought she was gone because she was trying to leave him, having not known anything about Bag-Hosra.  And as soon as they were home he had punished her for going somewhere without his permission.

     Courtney had saved her from any further abuse tonight, but Holly had refused to leave.  She had said Courtney had overreacted, that there was nothing to worry about, that Courtney owed the boyfriend for the repairs to the door. 

     Courtney had gone into that apartment feeling like a heroine and had come out feeling like nothing again.

     “Do you guys need me to punch back in?” she asked.

     “Um, no, don’t worry about it,” Phil said.  “You look like you’ve had enough for your first night.  Assuming that it is your first night and not your last?”

     “I don’t know,” Courtney said.  “Do either of you guys have a cigarette?”

     “Neither of us smoke,” Caleb said, “But I think someone on the first shift left a pack sitting next to the ordering computer.  You could probably grab one without getting in too much trouble.  And there’s an envelope for you back there, too.  Someone came in and left it for you.”

     Courtney grabbed a cigarette and the envelope, but she didn’t care what it was and made no attempt to open it.  Caleb said she could smoke in the back room if she wanted, but Courtney took it out the back door instead.  She wanted to be alone right now, and if either of them had a spare moment when not helping customers they might come in back and ask her questions.  She didn’t have any answers right now.

     The back of the store was in an alley with a dumpster next to the door.  Courtney leaned against the dumpster and lit the cigarette with a lighter Gloria had also left behind, coughing at the first smoke to enter her lungs.  She’d smoked a little in college, which had looked bad for someone in pre-med, so she’d quit.  She would have taken it up again during the war, but cigarettes had been in short supply when she’d been in hiding.  Now apparently it looked like she was starting again.  It calmed her nerves slightly, but nowhere near what she would have liked.

     The shakes began halfway through the cigarette.  She eventually flicked the rest of the cigarette aside and slid down to a sitting position against the dumpster, not wanting to fight the feelings taking over her body.  At least she wasn’t feeling all those emotions of worthlessness and cowardice and panic right now.  Instead she just felt numb.  That wasn’t so bad.  That was a hell of a lot better than the other options.

     “It won’t,” somebody said from down the alley.  The voice was high pitched and scratchy, like a mouse that had its larynx scrubbed out like a toilet brush.  “Stop, that is.  These feelings you have?  At least not for a while.”

     Courtney looked in the direction of the voice.  She didn’t see anyone, but that didn’t mean anything.  Whatever was talking to her wasn’t human.

     “And who exactly would you be?” Courtney asked the air.

     “I’ve been watching you all night,” the voice said.  “I’m not the only one, of course.  You’ll speak to the other one soon enough, but I figured I should introduce myself while I’m around, since you’ve been hearing about me all night.”

     There was only one thing she’d been hearing about all night that she hadn’t seen, but she didn’t think it was something she wanted to see at all.  “If you’re about to show yourself,” she said, “I’d rather you didn’t.  I’m not exactly in the mood to meet some sort of tentacled Great Old One.”

     “It’s Elder God for me, actually, and I’m not one of the tentacled ones.  I’m… stranger than that, I guess you could say.”

     The air at the end of the alley shimmered.  Matter rearranged itself, and something took solid form.  Courtney had to blink several times to make sure she wasn’t just seeing things.  At least a few of the things she had seen and heard tonight finally made sense, in an incredibly bizarre way. 

     A skunk floated in the air, a dead skunk with its back to the ground and its legs pointed straight up in the air.  The tail stuck straight out towards her and was flattened underneath as though something held it in the air, even though it was two feet off the ground.  Another several feet over the skunk there was a dark but small storm cloud.  Snow fell from the cloud in impressive sheets, but it all vanished before it hit the dead skunk.

     “I guess that would make you Bag-Hosra?” Courtney asked.

     “That’s correct.  You humans, you always assume that when the tales say we take forms beyond your understanding, that must mean we’re all gibbering tentacled horrors.  Most of us are just… well, what you would consider odd.”

     “Don’t you have some fertility celebrations to attend or something?” Courtney asked.  “I’m sure all your followers would be much happier to see you than I am.”

     “Maybe they would be, but they don’t really want to see me.  They just want to justify all their pomp and circumstance.  It would send the wrong message if I showed myself to them.  They would take it as me accepting this all, when really I believe they’re all just a little bit batty.”

     “Batty?” Courtney asked.  She was feeling a little like that herself, talking to a floating dead skunk and storm cloud, but she would be lying if she said she wasn’t a little intrigued.  “You actually think you’re followers are batty?”

     “Oh please.  Do you really think perfectly sane folk would willingly make themselves smell like a skunk?  With my own powers, which really aren’t quite as godlike as you would think but close enough, what do think is one of the first things I ever did?  I got rid of my own stench, that’s what.”

     “But all the stuff they do, they want to please you.  It’s all to make you happy, isn’t it?”

     “Aw hell no.  It’s to make themselves feel like they’re doing something important.  All the decorating, the sacrifices whether emu or human, the robes, I really couldn’t care less.  They just pretend that I care so they can say how pleased I am with them.”

     “And you’re not?”

     “I couldn’t care less, really.  They’re not really the kind of people I would hang around with if I had my choice.  I mean, would you?  They worship a freaking dead skunk.  Not exactly a character trait anyone would value highly.”

     “Not even the dead skunk in question?” Courtney asked.

     “Especially not the dead skunk in question.”

     “Man, this place is just weird,” Courtney said.

     “Says the half-plant woman from an alternate reality.”

     Courtney scowled at the cloud.  She figured that was the closest she was going to manage to making eye contact.  “So if you don’t think any of them are worthy enough then why suddenly show yourself to me?”

     “Because tonight I think you’re the one who needs me the most,” it said.  “I’m not really a god, more of a spirit, but do you know what I’m a spirit of?”

     Courtney shrugged.

     “It’s in the name of my holiday,” it said.  “Ancient Fertility Rite.  Fertility.  Growth.  Change.  New beginnings.”

     “New beginnings,” Courtney said.  “Maybe I don’t want new beginnings.”

     “Tough noogies,” the dead skunk said.  “Everyone gets a new beginning at some point whether they want one or not.  You feel guilt about surviving what happened to you.  You’re psyche is damaged by everything you saw and did.  All of that is in the past, though, and you’ve got the future ahead of you.”

     “That’s it?” Courtney asked.  “You just say something I could have read in a greeting card and that’s supposed to make me feel better?”

     “Who said I was here to make you feel better?  Nothing can fix the damage done to you, except maybe time, but even that’s not certain.  I am simply here to tell you what you really need to know.  And that is simply that there is a place for you.  Even the new damaged you.  You will have worth, even if you will often doubt it.  You have a role to play.”

     Courtney looked down at her hands folded in her lap.  She wasn’t sure what to say to that.  She’d had plenty of people try to help her through things in the past.  They had always said things like “It will get better,” or “There’s a reason for everything.”  Sometimes she had believed it, but more often she had thought those were just empty platitudes.

     It was nice to finally have someone tell her the cold hard truth, even if that someone was a dead skunk.

     She looked back up at Bag-Hosra, but the skunk was gone.  The cloud still remained for the moment, spilling the occasional snowflake on the ground, but it was fading, too.  She thought about thanking it, but that would just be weird.

     When it was gone she finally remembered she had the envelope in her hands.  She opened it and read the letter inside:

     I’ve been watching you tonight.  I know what you are capable of and what kind of things you need.  I also think you can do way better than the OneStop Mart for a job.  Perhaps you should give me a call.

     There was no name at the bottom of the note, just an attached business card with a phone number and a large letter Q.  New beginnings indeed. 

     She went back inside to tell Caleb and Phil that she really was quitting.  She also thought she might need to use the phone.

The End (For Now)

(c) 2010 Derek J. Goodman

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29
Dec
09

I’m Dreaming of… – Part 1

Happy holidays, everyone, even if I am a little late.  Unlike most of the other stories, this one comes directly out of the events of the last one, “The Leek Shall Inherit the Earth” (you can find it here: Part 1 and Part 2), although you don’t have to read that one to understand this one.  The character of Courtney wasn’t originally intended to appear in more than the one story, but she caught my eye as a character who might have a lot of interesting stories to tell.

And as always, if you like what you read here and would like more, please check out the Apocalypse Shift novel at Amazon.

I hope you enjoy!

Derek J. Goodman

I’m Dreaming of a White Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra – Part 1

            Courtney came out of the bathroom to find Sheila with a feather duster going over the shelves of knick-knacks in the living room.  Courtney had always considered herself a neat person, but Sheila went way beyond in her cleanliness.  She was a nice enough person when she wasn’t acting all put-upon, but she wouldn’t have been Courtney’s first choice for a roommate.  It wasn’t like Courtney had much choice, though.  Not everyone would take in someone who was not only from an alternate dimension, but also part plant.

            “So what do you think?” Courtney asked.

            Sheila barely glanced at her.  “About what?”

            “About the make-up?  Do you think it’ll work?”

            Sheila looked at her again, this time for longer as she appraised Courtney’s face.  “It’s fine, I guess.  I don’t know why you think you’ll need it, though.  No one’s going to care, not on the night shift.”

            “But Caleb said that mundies come into the store sometimes, and they might get weirded out by my appearance.”

            “I hate it when he calls us that,” Sheila said.  “Just because there are people out there who aren’t freaks, doesn’t mean he needs to call us something that sounds derogatory.  Mundies just sounds… I don’t know.”

            Courtney tried to keep any anger from coming through in her voice.  “Freaks?  You mean like me?”

            Sheila stopped dusting and finally gave Courtney her full attention.  “No.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean that.”

            “Sure, of course not,” Courtney said.  Her voice still sounded bitter, though, and she wished she could hide it better.  She didn’t want anyone else judging her.  She had to keep up appearances.  She had to look normal.  She had to pretend that she didn’t feel completely and utterly damaged, new life or not.

            Sheila’s voice softened as she came closer and made a closer inspection of Courtney’s make-up.  “Really, it all looks good to… oop!  Missed a spot right there behind your ear.”

            Courtney went back into the bathroom, with Sheila trailing behind her, and looked in the mirror while holding up one of Sheila’s hand mirrors to get a better look at the back of her ear.  Not only was it Sheila’s mirror, but also her make-up.  Courtney didn’t have anything to call her own yet, not even a bed in her new bedroom.  That was just one of the many problems with fleeing across dimensions to escape a war against killer plants.  She hadn’t exactly been given a chance to pack for her trip.

            “Oh, you’re right,” Courtney said.  It was small, but just behind her ear she could see a small patch of newly-green skin.  It had been tough staring at herself for so long as she had put all the makeup on.  The strange virus that had mutated her body into something less like a mammal and more like a plant had turned all her skin bright green.  It was like a scar that covered her entire body, something she desperately wanted to cover.  The make-up made it a little easier.  Sheila’s make-up made her look paler than her skin should have been, but she could fix that once she could buy her own.  That’s what tonight was about, after all.  She had to make sure she looked like a human again for her first night at her new job.

            “So are you nervous?” Sheila asked.

            “Not really,” Courtney said.  “It’s just a convenience store.  I used to work at one back when I was in college.”  College.  Courtney hadn’t thought of that much lately.  She didn’t want to.  Years of pre-med, and now she couldn’t use it.  Schools around here probably wouldn’t take transfer credits from a parallel world.

            Sheila snorted.  “No, Court, it’s not just a convenience store.  If you had taken one of the day shift spots, then sure, you could try telling yourself that.  But even when I’m working the second shift, I can see what things are like once the night comes.  You, however, are going to be working there only during the nights.  I would go nuts if I had to deal with all that lunacy.”

            Courtney just fixed the make-up, not saying anything.  She’d seen a little of the night shift when she had come through into this world, but the strangeness had been mostly her own fault.  Caleb and Gloria had told her things were like that all the time, but Courtney hadn’t been sure how much of that she believed.  Even for a girl from a world run by vegetables, the idea of werewolves, vampires, zombies, and whatever else as regular customers still seemed pretty far fetched.

            “And to make it worse, you’re starting work on the craziest night of the whole year,” Sheila said.

            Courtney glanced over her shoulder at Sheila.  “It’s only September 18th,” she said.  “What’s so crazy about that?”

            Sheila’s eyes went wide.  “Oh crud.  You mean Caleb didn’t tell you?”

            “Tell me what?”

            “It’s the holidays.”

            “There’s no holiday on September 18th.”

            “Maybe not for the rest of the world.  But here in this neighborhood, on the Hill?  It’s like Christmas for all the weirdos.”

            “Wouldn’t that be Halloween?” Courtney asked.

            “No, silly.  Halloween is just for the people who don’t have a clue.  But today?”  Sheila leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, even though they were alone in the apartment.  “Today is the Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra.”

            Courtney frowned.  “You’ve got to be making that up.”

            Sheila crossed her heart with an index finger.  “I swear I’m not.”

            “But what does that even mean?”

            “Hell if I know.  Maybe Caleb can explain it better to you than he did to me.  But there’s no way in hell I’m going outside tonight.”

            “You refuse to go outside at night around here anyway.”

            “But tonight I really, really mean it.  Now, you better finish getting ready for work.  The sun’s going to set soon, and you’ll want to get to the OneStop before all the real nutso stuff begins.”

            Courtney continued to look skeptically at her, but she decided maybe it would be a good idea to hurry up.  Just in case.

*          *          *

            Sheila’s apartment was about six blocks from the OneStop Mart, which really wasn’t that far, Courtney supposed, but in a neighborhood as dense as the Hill, there were a whole lot of things to pass in between.  There was an organic grocery store just a block away in the direction of the OneStop, but Courtney actually went a block out of her way to go around it.  All grocery stores had taken on a sinister feeling to her now.  That was, after all, where she had been going when she had first discovered the rebellion of vegetables in her home universe.  When she saw a grocery store she thought of produce, and when she thought of produce she thought of death and dismemberment and war and plagues.  It was no wonder that she had lost weight since she had come here.

            The extra block took her down a street of rather old buildings, some of which looked like they might have once been mansions but had in more recent years been converted into apartments.  Most of them looked more or less normal, but as she approached one on the corner she saw some people scurrying about outside with what looked like decorations.  They almost looked like Christmas decorations, including garland and light strings and glass bulb ornaments.  When she got closer, though, she saw that the garland quivered even when it wasn’t being moved, as though it were alive.  The lights weren’t lights at all, but glowing orbs of energy attached to organic-looking sinews.  And the glass bulbs?  They were all red, but not because they were painted that color.  The glass was clear, and some sort of thick red liquid filled them. 

            Maybe this was a house Courtney needed to go around, too.

            She was about to cross the street to get away from it when one of the people decorating saw her, made a joyful sound, and ran up to meet her.  The person was a woman, but Courtney didn’t know that for sure until she was close enough to see the woman’s face.  Instead of normal clothing, the woman wore a robe that hid her gender, and it had a hood that kept her face mostly in shadow.  She had a silver necklace around her neck with a symbol on it that might have been a cloud.  Courtney stopped walking, holding her breath as the woman stood right in front of her.  For some reason the woman smelled atrocious, like a dead skunk.

            “Ooh, isn’t it exciting?” the woman said.

            “Um, I guess,” Courtney said.  “What’s exciting, exactly?”

            “The Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra, silly!  I mean, you have accepted Bag-Hosra into your heart, right?”

            “Um, maybe?”

            “Oh,” the woman said.  Her cheerful demeanor vanished, replaced by a deep, sinister tone in her voice.  “I see you haven’t.  But you will.  Bag-Hosra will come for you soon, and he will have your soul for his.”  The woman brightened again.  “Do you think it will snow tonight?”

            “Probably not.  It’s the middle of September.”

            “That doesn’t mean anything,” the woman said, and her voice went low again.  “When Bag-Hosra deems it to be time, then…”

            “Addie!” someone called out from the house.  “Quit trying to convert the non-believers until after we have the decorations up.”

            The woman ran squealing back to the house.  Courtney continued on to the OneStop, moving much faster now and avoiding any place with decorations.  She was vaguely aware that once upon a time she would have been unsettled by what had just happened, but now it just seemed like just another messed up part of a messed up existence. 

            Maybe this world could be as screwed up as her own after all.

*          *          *

            Both Caleb and Phil were already at the OneStop waiting for her when she got there.  They were both supposed to be on hand to train her for her first night, although Phil didn’t look to happy to be there.  Caleb, on the other hand, looked cheery, almost as much as the mysterious robed woman had been.  They were both already in their OneStop smocks, but Caleb also wore something that looked akin to a Santa hat.  Instead of being red, however, the hat was black with white fur and, instead of a puff ball at the end, it had a small tassel that looked suspiciously like a skunk’s tail.

            “Hey, Courtney,” Caleb said.  “Ready for your first night?”

            “What exactly is going on?” Courtney asked.  “What’s the Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra?”

            “Caleb, you dumbass,” Phil said.  “You mean you didn’t tell her yet?”

            “Hey, don’t look at me,” Caleb said.  “I wasn’t the one who hired her.  Big Maggie was the one who should have let her know what was going to be going on for her first night on the job.”

            “Big Maggie doesn’t know jack about the AFR,” Phil said.  “And even if she did, she would refuse to admit it.  You know how she is.  Last time she was here during the night and she saw that invasion by the tiny blue cannibal men in white hats?  She claimed she was just having an LSD flashback even though she’s never done drugs in her life.”

            “Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Caleb said.  “If she hadn’t stopped them by accidently stepping on the one in the red hat with the beard, she would have just let them eat her and denied it was happening the whole time.”  He turned to Courtney.  “So that would make it my bad.  Really sorry about that.  Tell you what.  I’ll start explaining it as I show you the basics.”

            Courtney followed him into the back room, where he gave her a smock and a nametag, then showed her how to punch in.  He talked the whole time.

            “Okay, normally this is where I go into my spiel about how the graveyard shift here at the OneStop is different than at other stores, but you’ve already seen the gist of it firsthand, and I know Gloria and Sheila have been filling you in a little bit.  That night when the veggies attacked and you were infected by them, that’s pretty typical, although in an atypical way.  Killer veggies were a new one, even for…”

            “Could we really not talk about that?” Courtney asked.

            Caleb looked at her with a stare deeper than she would have expected out of him.  She didn’t like that look.  That was the look she was sure she was going to get from anyone she ever met in this universe.  That could only be the look of someone judging her.  The moment lasted far too long for Courtney.

            Caleb continued as though the moment hadn’t happened.  “Fine.  So you know about all the vampires and werewolves and Madonna impersonators and other monsters that roam the Hill…”

            “Wait, Madonna impersonators?  How does that count as a monster?”
            “Maybe Madonna was different in your home reality, but trust me.  In this one Madonna impersonators are true beasties.  But that’s not the point I’m getting at.  What I need to explain to you is the concept of Great Old Ones and Elder Gods and things.”

            They stepped out of the back room and behind the registers.  Phil was doing the cigarette inventory for the night, and he gave Courtney a quick idea of how to do it, but a couple customers came in, forcing Phil to stop long enough to take care of them while Caleb continued.  Courtney noticed that one of the customers, a petite woman in her early twenties, nodded at both Caleb and Phil when she came in but didn’t move to browse anything on the shelves.  Instead she walked to the corner of the store over by the freezer case, pulled a book out of her pocket, and sat down on the floor out of the way to read.

            Courtney tried not to stare at the woman.  In a place like this, there was probably a perfectly good (and likely completely loony) reason for the woman’s actions, especially since neither Phil nor Caleb appeared to care.  “Um, Great Old Ones.  Why does that seem familiar?  Isn’t there some writer who created them or something?”

            Caleb shrugged.  “Not in this reality, or at least not that I know of.  But they’re beings, older than humanity.  They have a tendency to drive people insane.  Most are malevolent, a few very rare ones aren’t that bad.  Either way, some people, especially ones on the Hill, form cults to worship them.”

            “And Bag-Hosra is one of them?” Courtney asked.

            “Sort of.  I guess.  I don’t really know much about Bag-Hosra, just the rantings of his followers.  And today is his holiday.”

            “That might explain what I saw on my way here,” Courtney said, and she described the decorated house and the woman in the robe.  “So today is a holiday for evil cultists?”

            “Yep.  They’re going to be doing all kinds of messed up things today.  Illegal things, maybe evil things, most definitely insane things.”

            “So what are we going to do to stop them?” Courtney asked.

            “What, do you expect us to go charging out there and rounding up all the insane cultists who want a monster god thing to eat the world?” Caleb asked.  “We can’t do that.  We have work.  And if any of them come in here, we serve them, provided they behave themselves.”

            “And you think they would?” Courtney asked.

            “People don’t really try to mess around with us here at the OneStop,” Phil said.

            “Why, are you guys that scary and badass?” Courtney asked.

            “Hell yeah we are,” Caleb said.

            “Caleb likes to think he’s a badass, but really?” Phil said.  “People just don’t want to get kicked out of here.  Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get their late night nachos.”

            “Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared,” Caleb said.  “People always get rowdy around the holidays, and cultists are no exception.  And probably most importantly, we need to make sure none of these nitwits harass Holly.”

            “Who’s Holly?” Courtney asked.

            Caleb cocked his thumb in the direction of the corner, where the woman was still minding her own business.  “A sorceress friend of mine does a search spell every year before the AFR.  Finds every person on or near the Hill with the name Holly and makes sure she’s somewhere safe tonight.  That one didn’t have anywhere to go, so she’s going to be hanging out here until the sun rises.”

            “I don’t understand,” Courtney said.  “Why wouldn’t she be safe?

            “Because it’s the holidays.  And the followers of Bag-Hosra, part of their holiday tradition is decking the halls.”

            “With boughs of holly?” Courtney asked.

            “Nope, bowels,” Caleb said.  “Now if you’ll come with me, I’ll show you the back cooler and how to front-face the stock.”  He was moving before Courtney had a chance to ask him if he was joking.  She looked at Phil, expecting to see some smirk to let her know she was the butt of a joke, but his face was completely straight.  He even looked a little bored.

            Her sleep ever since she had arrived here had been haunted by nightmares of her home reality, but for the first time she wondered if she would have been better off staying there.

*          *          *

            The first several hours of her shift went by with little incident.  She caught on quickly, since most of the duties were similar to what she’d had to do while working her way through college.  Some things took a lot of getting used to, though.  Most of the customers looked fairly normal, if somewhat bohemian compared to anywhere else in the city.  Others, however, were very clearly not human.  One guy, towering over Courtney at something near seven feet tall, was dressed in tattered clothes and a battered hockey mask.  She half-expected him to try robbing the store with the blood stained machete tucked in his belt, but instead he bought a Pina Colada-flavored Froztee, a quart of motor oil, and a bag of cough drops. 

            Although she heard several customers chattering about the Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra, none of them seemed to be actual cultists.  The only cultist related disturbance in those first several hours was across the street from the store, and she had been able to witness some of it while she’d been outside sweeping the parking lot.  A large number of cultists had gathered and were apparently trying to protest, but it didn’t appear they were very organized.  Several waved signs that said “Keep Bag-Hosra in the Ancient Fertility Rite of Bag-Hosra.”  It was hard to tell with only the orangish glow of the street lights to illuminate the signs, but Courtney thought the words may have been written in blood.  A lot of the others had broken into two separate groups screaming at each other from opposite sides of the street.  One group had signs that said “Bag-Hosra Hates Bags.”  The other group had signs with “Bag-Hosra Hates Hosras.”

            Courtney wasn’t sure whether she should be repulsed or amused.

            Caleb and Phil showed her around and told her how to do various chores, but they both seemed happy with how quickly she caught on and mostly left her alone to do her work.  She was glad they were pleased, but she wasn’t sure if this was a job she could keep for long.  The monotony of it reminded her so much of the way her life had been before the war in her home reality, and really, she still hadn’t even gotten used to the idea that “home reality” was someplace else, somewhere she would never be able to go back.  The worst part was that mundane activities, things that shouldn’t have bothered her in the slightest, gave her shivering fits.  The sight of the onions and tomatoes in the nacho bar made her nauseous, and the lettuce on the subs in the deli case kept looking to her like it was moving.  She was honestly thinking about quitting when she finally had a chance to talk to Holly.

            Courtney almost tripped over the poor woman.  Caleb had instructed her how to do the nightly temperature check for the cooler and freezer case, and she was so distracted as she went that forget Holly was in the way.  The woman had folded her legs up with her knees tight against her chest, doing her best to remain out of the way, but she had to skitter aside as Courtney barreled down the aisle. 

            “Oh, whoops.  Sorry,” Courtney said as she dodged out of the way, barely managing to avoid colliding with Holly’s feet. 

            “That’s okay,” Holly said in a timid voice.  “I’m just sorry I’m in the way.”

            “Oh, don’t worry.  You’re not in the way,” Courtney said.  She hadn’t been giving Holly much thought so far, but now that she stood next to the woman it occurred to Courtney just how scared she looked.  “Um, do you mind if I ask you a question?”

            “I guess I don’t.”

            “Do you have to do this every year?”

            “No, um, this is my first year on the Hill.” 

            Courtney looked around to make sure neither Phil nor Caleb were watching her disapprovingly for not working, but Phil was helping a customer while Caleb lounged against the magazine racks and flipped through a gaming magazine.  She hunched down so she was at eye level with Holly to give her a better look.  Her face was nervous and uncertain, and her dark brown eyes were wide as they flicked back and forth, trying to look at everything in her environment at once.  It occurred to Courtney that this was the first time since crossing over into this reality that she had really made eye contact with anyone. 

            “Do you really think you’re in danger tonight?” Courtney asked.

            “I don’t know.  Maybe.  I guess I’d believe it.  I’ve only lived here on the Hill for a few months, but I didn’t realize the… stuff that went on here until a couple weeks ago.”

            “How did you come to live here?”

            Holly shrugged and looked away.  “Used to live with my boyfriend,” she said.  Courtney got the distinct impression that she didn’t want to talk about it any further.

            It was strange, but Courtney felt a lot of the doubt and nervousness from earlier disappear as she looked at Holly.  She remembered very clearly many times in the past where she had been confronted with other scared people, and she hadn’t felt any fear herself anymore when she was around them.  She’d had the urgent need to protect them, and that had superseded any of her own needs and emotions.  It wasn’t until she was alone that all the pain and fear and trauma came back to her, and lately she had felt very, very alone.

            “Tell you what,” Courtney said.  “You’ll be perfectly safe while you’re here.”  She reached out pat Holly on the knee, but Holly reflexively moved away.

            “Is there something wrong with you?” Holly asked. 

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable or anything,” Courtney said.

            “No, your cheek,” Holly said.  “It looks kind of… green.”

            “Oh,” Courtney said, all of the fear and inexplicable dread coming back to her in a great wave.  She stood up and backed away from Holly.  “That’s just… I’m going to… I’ll be right back.”  She back-peddled away from the woman and in the direction of the bathroom.  She shoved past a man standing by the deli case and moved swiftly towards the door, ignoring his protests.  She tried to pull the door open, found it wouldn’t budge, then tried again, harder.  It still wouldn’t move.

            “Hey,” Caleb said, coming up from behind her.  “Something wrong?”

            “I need to get in,” she said, giving the handle another rattle.  She didn’t like the way her voice quavered, but she didn’t try to fight it.  Right now it seemed far more important to fix her face, to keep people from seeing that she was a freak, that she was damaged, that…

            She suddenly had to fight very hard from screaming.

            “Okay, okay, relax,” Caleb said.  “We keep the bathroom locked to keep people from coming in just to use it to sleep in or do drugs in or summon demons in the toilet.”  He pulled a key from his pocket and handed it to Courtney.  She immediately shoved it in the handle and went inside, not even bothering to say thank you.

            Courtney was in the bathroom for ten minutes, just sitting on the toilet and trying to catch her breath, before she even realized that she didn’t even have the makeup on her to fix her face.  It was still in her borrowed purse sitting in the back room.  She had briefly seen her reflection in the mirror when she had come in, and there had indeed been a small patch where her green skin showed through, but she hadn’t wanted to look at it just now.  Instead she sat trying to figure out what was wrong.  This didn’t feel like the person she should be.  She’d survived a war with fucking vegetables, for Christ’s sakes.  She’d faced them and escaped and had even survived one final encounter where she had prevented them from destroying this reality like they had her own.

            So why did she feel weak and disgusting and unfit to live?

            After another five minutes she finally got herself together enough to leave the bathroom and get Sheila’s makeup, then went back and patched up the spot on her cheek.  When she finally came out of the bathroom and gave Caleb the key back, she could see the concern on both his and Phil’s faces.  Maybe that was the worst part.  They looked sorry for her, but she could also swear they had to be condemning her as weak at the same time. 

            “Are you okay?” Caleb asked.

            “Fine,” she said.  She was sure he could tell by her voice that she was lying, but she didn’t really care.  She looked out at the rest of the store, a part of her brain actually checking to see if there might be any tomatoes lurking in the shadows, but all she saw were customers.  It took her a moment to see that Holly was gone.

            “Where’d Holly go?” she asked.

            Caleb and Phil looked around, and Caleb shrugged.  “Don’t know.  She was just here.”

            “You didn’t see her leave?” Courtney asked.

            “No, we were kind of distracted wondering if you were okay,” Phil said. 

            “Well, she would know not to leave the store, right?” Caleb asked.

            “I don’t have a clue,” Phil said.  “Wylma’s the one that contacted her and sent her to stay here tonight.  I really don’t have a clue how much she told Holly.  Maybe she didn’t make it known how dangerous it would really be?”

            No, Courtney thought.  She had seen the young woman’s eyes.  Holly had known how dangerous it might be for her tonight.  Courtney went over to the corner where she’d been sitting.  Holly’s book was still there, closed with its bookmark sitting a good three feet away.  It looked like she had left in a hurry, or perhaps like someone had taken her away before she could put the bookmark in.

            “They took her,” Courtney said as Caleb and Phil followed her to the corner.  “While you weren’t looking, the Bag-Hosra people got her.”

            “Actually, they’re called Bag-Hosrians,” Caleb said.

            “Really? I thought they were going by Bag-Hosrites this week,” Phil said.

            “No, you’re thinking of last week.  Although come to think of it, I actually heard one refer to himself yesterday as a Hosra-Bagian, so maybe…”

            “Will you two shut the hell up?” Courtney said.  “I don’t give a shit what they’re calling themselves.  They took her.  We’ve got to find her.”

            “Okay, first,” Caleb said.  “We don’t actually know that they took her.  She really could have just gone off by herself.  You know, got sick of sitting in a convenience store all night.”

            Courtney looked out the glass of the front door.  All the protesters that had been outside earlier were gone, although she thought she could see a discarded picket sign lying in the parking lot.  “No.  You know that’s not what happened.”

            “Fine,” Phil said, “but we can’t just leave looking for her.  We’re working here…”

            “Screw work!” Courtney said.  “They might kill her!”

            “…and we don’t know where they would have taken her,” Phil said.  “This isn’t something we can fix.”

            “Are you kidding me?” Courtney asked.  “You’re just going to give up on her?”

            “We’re not saying that,” Caleb said.  “We know people.  We can call them, and I trust that they can help her.  But we can’t.  We have to stay here.  If they come back, we can totally wipe the floor with their asses.  But otherwise, we’re kind of powerless.”

            Courtney had felt powerless since pretty much the moment she had woken up in this reality.  She’d felt powerless as she’d covered up her new complexion, and she had felt powerless when she’d had the feeling that the store’s condiments were staring at her.  She knew powerless well enough.  But when she had looked at that woman, someone else who had felt powerless, she suddenly hadn’t felt that way at all.  She’d felt in control for a moment, and thinking about that now, she still felt in control.

            “I’m going out to find her,” Courtney said.

            “You can’t leave the store,” Caleb said.  “You’re on the clock.”

            “Then I quit,” Courtney said.  She started to take off her smock, but Caleb touched her arm and stopped her.

            “You seriously willing to do that?” Caleb asked.

            “Absolutely.”

            Caleb smirked.  “We’ll make up an excuse for you while you go to help her.  Say you went home sick or something.  Big Maggie will be suspicious, but screw her.  Because I really don’t think you’re the kind of worker we want to lose.”

            Courtney still wasn’t sure she wanted to stay anyway, but she nodded.  Neither Caleb or Phil looked like they could possibly understand what she was going through, and she still wasn’t sure they didn’t think her unworthy on some deeper level, but for now this would have to do. 

To Be Concluded

(c)2009 Derek J. Goodman