Luis let Marja kill the seagull before he asked his question.
She did it fast, chopping the head off with one cut. Blood splashed into the plastic bucket at her feet. She kept her face blank, but Luis knew it bothered the hell out of her.
“So are you gonna help me?” he asked as she placed the seagull’s body and head into a plastic grocery sack.
“I don’t know.” She knotted the sack closed and placed it in an old shoebox. Then she picked up the bucket of blood and an old paintbrush, flecks of pale blue paint still stuck in its bristles, and walked over to her front door.
“C’mon baby. I don’t got a lot of time here.”
She dipped the brush into the blood and smeared a thick red line across the door.
“You said you’d let me know—”
“I know what I said.” The brush dipped into the bucket again. Slapped more blood across the door. “I can’t decide.”
Luis cursed beneath his breath and pulled a pack of cigarettes out from his front shirt pocket. Marja glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, frowning.
“What?” he said.
Marja turned back to her door, added another swipe of blood.
Luis stepped off the front porch before he lit his cigarette. The waves in the Gulf were higher than usual, lines of white appearing and disappearing in the brown-gray water. It was spring, too early for a hurricane, but ever since the world split open and things got weird you couldn’t bank on weather patterns anymore. Or maybe it was because of the Tiend.
Behind him, he heard the patter of Marja’s feet on the porch steps.
Luis blew out a cloud of smoke as he looked over his shoulder at her. She held the shoebox with the dead bird in front of her chest like an offering.
“You need help with that?”
“Not really.” She brushed past him and walked to the edge of the yard. Knelt down in the rippling seagrass. Started digging.
Luis finished his smoke and flicked the butt into the driveway. The mark on her door was neat and precise: three horizontal lines, three circles, three dots. Three three three.
“That’s good,” he told her, cutting across the yard. She didn’t look up from her digging. “You ought go around door-to-door. Like those yard guys on the mainland. Charge for it, you know.”
“Doesn’t work that way.” She placed the shoebox in the hole and scooped damp, sandy dirt back on top of it. When she finished there was a bald patch in the yard.
She stood up, dusting her hands on the back of her dress.
Luis lit another cigarette.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked.
He looked up at her. She stood next to the seagull’s grave squinting at him, her hands on her hips, the wind blowing her hair across her eyes. Freakin’ beautiful. She’d looked like that the night he met her, at a party on the beach.
“I have to do it,” he said.
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“Right. Like you didn’t have to kill that seagull?”
That got a glare out of her. Luis smiled, cocked his eyebrows. Blew a smoke ring.
“Come down to the beach with me,” she said.
Luis’ heart skittered. “You’re gonna do it?”
“I’m gonna look. Come on.”
Luis put his cigarette out even though he hadn’t finished it. The wind blew stronger along the water, damp and grey, a bit of unseasonal coolness to it. Marja stepped out into the shallow waves, and the water kissed at her bare feet, at the chipped blue nail polish on her toes. Luis rubbed at his arms.
Marja walked back onto the sand. She looked different: her skin had taken on the green-brown cast it got whenever she read the sea drift. She’d told him once her veins were filled with seawater, and it was true that he’d never seen her bleed, not even when that kitten of hers clawed at her bare legs. But her body still got as warm as any other woman’s whenever they screwed.
“This way,” she said, and she trailed along the sand, her dress rippling out behind her. Luis jogged to catch up.
“Thanks,” he said, because he figured he should say something.
“Don’t talk right now.” She frowned and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “It’s distracting.”
Luis pantomimed zipping his lips shut. She ignored him.
They’d been walking about fifteen minutes when they came to the pile of seaweed, dead jellyfish, and broken glass bottles strewn across the sand. Marja knelt down and stared at the pile, her eyes glowing. Luis shifted from foot to foot, not sure what he should be doing. He’d watched her read the sea drift before, but always for clients, usually college girls who came in from the suburbs during the summer to see who they were going to marry or what subject they should major in. He pulled out his cigarettes but didn’t light one, just fiddled with the foil.
It didn’t take long. Maybe a minute or two.
Marja stood up. The glow went out of her eyes.
“Two nights from now,” she said. Her voice echoed like she was inside a jail cell.
“Yeah, yeah, everybody and their mothers knows that already. I want the time.”
“Ten-twelve. Nighttime, of course.”
Luis chewed on his bottom lip. Her skin was still glowing.
“Will it work?”
She stared at him for a long time, unmoving.
“Aw Jesus, you ain’t gonna tell me, are you?”
Marja shrugged. “Does it matter? The future’s as permanent as the sea.”
She always said stuff like that. She said it to her clients, whenever they got news they didn’t want. She said it to him whenever he asked her to look forward on some job or another. Like this job. But this job was different. What he was planning this time was dangerous. He knew it, even if he wouldn’t admit it.
“So the time for the Tiend? That as permanent as the sea, too?”
Marja frowned. Her eyes got distant. “No,” she said. “Faerie’s different.”
Luis didn’t know what she meant by that, but he didn’t particularly care, either. As long as the time was right.
“If you’re telling me wrong—” he said, pulling out the voice he used whenever he ran errands for Mr. Fatula. The threatening one, the one that said, I’m gonna cut out your heart if you don’t listen to me. But it didn’t faze her.
“I don’t want you to die either.” She pushed the wayward strands of hair away from her face. “I don’t think you should do this at all.”
Luis wrapped one arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, breathed in the smell of her hair, like sea salt and dune flowers.
“I ain’t gonna die,” he said. “Even if that’s what you saw, it don’t matter, does it?” He kicked a spray of sand into the waves licking up against the shore. “‘Cause five minutes from now you could see different.”
Marja lay her head on his shoulder. “I didn’t see you dying,” she said.
Relief flooded through Luis, made his heart swell up like he was in love.
“‘But that doesn’t mean anything. Because the Tiend doesn’t mean death.” The wind blew flecks of sea foam across the two of them, colder than the water had any right to be in the middle of April. “I don’t know why that’s so hard for you people to understand.”
“Us people?” He laughed. “What, like Mexicans?”
She sighed, her breath soft as a kiss against his neck, and his body stirred.
“No,” she said sadly. “Like humans.”
Luis made some phone calls after he left Marja’s house, letting Frankie and Shane know he had the time. 10:12 pm, April 25. Two days from now. The thought of it made his stomach queasy, and he pulled his beat-up old Chevy, a relic from Before that still ran okay, up along the Seawall and chain-smoked a trio of cigarettes. One for each of them.
It was all ‘cause of Shane. He’d gotten pissed at Mr. Fatula for some dumb-ass reason and gone running over to the Latin Kings during a party up at some apartment complex. Wound up doing some work for them on the side, for a couple months. Mr. Fatula found out, the way he always did—Luis was pretty sure Mr. Fatula had some Folk in him. Once he’d asked Marja about it, and she gave him a look like he was better off not knowing, which he took to mean he was right. Luis supposed it didn’t really matter one or another, though. A boss is a boss. Whether he’s human or Folk or something else, he’s still gonna pay you to do whatever he says.
It didn’t take long after Shane’s screw-up for Mr. Fatula to drag all three of them into his big glass house up in Houston, the light all green and eerie from the pine trees growing all over his property.
“One of you screws up,” he said. “All three of you screw up.” Mr. Fatula was big on threes. He always assigned jobs in groups of threes: sometimes he gave three tasks for one night, or made them do one job in three hours or three days or whatever. Luis didn’t question it. After things got weird, superstition was all you had to go on sometimes.
Still, it pissed him off that because Shane didn’t know what was good for him, now he and Frankie both had to come up with a way to get half a million dollars to Mr. Fatula in three weeks: “Three weeks,” Mr. Fatula said, “and not a day earlier.” The half a million dollars was supposedly what Mr. Fatula estimated Shane’s dalliance had cost him, although Luis suspected the number was just one that Mr. Fatula had pulled out of his ass because he wanted to see them fail.
“What if it’s a day later?” Frankie had asked. Luis resisted every urge to knock out his teeth. Shane didn’t even look at either of them—he had his head hanging down between his knees through the whole conversation.
But Mr. Fatula just smiled, that weird wide grin that seemed to split his face in half. “I would advise against it,” he said.
They wasted the first few days arguing over how they were gonna get the money, and then the next few on beating up on Shane when they couldn’t come up with anything good. Shane was drunk through all of it—he’d been drunk since Mr. Fatula found out, in fact, and was constantly sipping from a silver metal flask he kept in his back jeans pocket. Frankie tried to win some money in a few local poker games and he came up with about fifteen hundred dollars, which was impressive for Frankie, but not exactly useful for their current situation.
Then word came about the Tiend.
It hadn’t happened before, but suddenly everybody knew it was coming. That was the thing about the weirdness; you knew things now, old bits of folklore and stories. Every seven years, the Folk collected a blood-tithe. They’d come creeping out of the forests and the mountains and the ocean and snake their way into the cities, and if you were out on the streets or if you hadn’t marked your door the way Marja had, they’d snatch you up and kill you—or do worse, if you wanted to listen to Marja.
Luis was the one who got the idea. Once night fell, everyone would be hiding behind their bloodstained doors, but the Folk wouldn’t come out right away. So that gave them some time to crack open every goddamn safe they could get their hands on. At least, that was Luis’ thinking, until Shane spoke up, his voice blurred from the cheap vodka he’d been drinking.
“Waste of time,” he slurred. “Go after one safe—the vault at Moody Bank.”
“And how we gonna get in there?” Frankie asked. “Do we look like goddam jewelry thieves to you?”
“Jewelry—what? No.” Shane shook his head. “I know a guy. Computers.” He pretended to type on the cracked picnic table Luis kept out on his back porch. “He can get us in.”
“Yeah, you met this guy working for Valderez?” Frankie leaned back, thumped his fist on the table.
Shane shook his head. “Old friend.” He tossed back another drink from his flask.
Frankie turned to Luis. “I don’t like it.”
Luis frowned. “It would be safer,” he said. “One place instead of dozens. We don’t even know how much time we got.”
“Yeah.” Frankie narrowed his eyes. “How you gonna find that out, anyway?”
Luis waved his hand, already knowing he could go to Marja. “Got my own friend.”
“Too many friends involved with this.”
“How else are we gonna get half a million by next Tuesday?”
That shut Frankie up. He pushed away from the table and stalked off to the back corner of the yard, kicked at the grass growing in patches along the fence. Luis pulled out a cigarette and turned to Shane.
“You sure about this friend of yours?” he asked.
And Shane had lifted his head, his face flushed from the booze. “You sure you can get our asses off the street before the Folk come?”
The day of the Tiend, the air was damp and cold for April. Luis pulled on a jacket when he drove to meet Shane’s friend at his house on the mainland; a big beige house in a big beige suburb. The yard was unmowed and dotted with yellow dandelions. Blood marks on the door.
The friend called himself Mr. Atom, which Luis thought was stupid. When the friend answered he squinted like he couldn’t see Luis clearly, and then stepped back into the dark cave of his house, letting the door hang open. He didn’t look like much, just some skinny kid who needed to comb his hair.
“Have a seat,” the friend said, nodding at a ratty old futon covered in cat hair in the living room. Luis didn’t sit and the friend didn’t say anything about it, just disappeared down the hallway. There was a big picture window that looked out into the backyard, and the world looked like a storm was brewing, grey sky, winds thwapping the banana trees back and forth.
“You want into Moody National, right?” Luis jumped, turned around. The kid had a big black laptop tucked under one arm, some kind of rune etched on the casing. Computers didn’t work that well anymore.
“That’s what Shane promised. Said you were good for it.”
“Of course I’m good for it.” The kid sat down on the futon and opened the laptop. “You know why he picked that bank in particular?” The kid peered up at Luis, face contorted into this insolent little smirk. Luis thought about the knife in his back pocket. “Shane picked it, didn’t he?”
“What’s your point?”
“I designed their security system.”
“A little bit of magic, a little bit of technology.” The kid’s fingers tapped against his keyboard. “Foolproof system.” Until you sell the poor bastards out.
The kid stopped typed and looked up at Luis. “I need something of yours. Hair, maybe. Blood would be better.” Luis plucked a hair out of his head and handed it to the kid, who laid it across the keyboard and started typing again. Thunder rumbled somewhere off in the distance.
It didn’t take long, though the electricity in the house flickered and dimmed as the kid typed and Luis could feel his skin prickling. He thought about Moody Bank, the round brick building off Broadway, squatting there like a toad beneath the twisted-up oak trees. In, grab the money, make for Frankie’s house three blocks over, its door already covered in blood marks.
“Finished,” the kid said. He handed Luis’ hair back and folded the laptop shut.
“The hell am I supposed to do with this?” Luis asked, the hair rippling from the ceiling fan.
“I don’t care. I got what I needed from it.”
Luis dropped the hair on the futon.
“So when do I get paid?” the kid asked.
“First thing tomorrow morning,” Luis said. “Just like Shane told you.” Should of told you, anyway.
The kid’s eyes glittered. “Assuming you get out of there alive, right? You do know there’s a Tiend tonight?”
“Better than anyone,” Luis said. “We finished here?”
“The system’ll let you do whatever you want,” the kid said. “Won’t protect you from the Folk, though.”
Luis nodded at the kid and walked back out to his truck.
Luis spent the rest of the day at a shabby little Mexican seafood place, sitting in the back corner drinking beer and smoking one cigarette after another until his fingers trembled. Around three the waitress came around with his check, even though he hadn’t asked for it.
“Sorry mister,” she said. “We’re closing early. You know—” Any other day she would’ve been pretty, but this afternoon her skin was drawn tight over her face and there were dark circles under eyes.
“Yeah, yeah.” Luis fumbled around in his wallet for a pair of crumpled twenties and handed them to her. “Keep the change.”
She nodded at him, too distracted even to smile. Luis went down to the beach.
The waves were higher than he’d ever seen him. They looked like the waves in surfing videos he’d watched as a kid. Walls of water.
At first they were just waves, flecked with seaweed or jellyfish, but after awhile, he stated to see other things in them: little grey faces with starlight eyes and sharp teeth, spots of red, hands like bird talons. And so he left, his skin crawling. Even the cigarettes couldn’t calm him. He drove up and down Broadway, wove through the neighborhoods of stilted clapboard houses.
Every door was smeared with blood.
A few people were still out, though. The Whataburger had a sign up saying they were open until sunset, and every now and then Luis passed another car or someone out in a yard, peering up at the sky. It was almost six o’clock. Sun would set in about an hour and a half.
Luis drove to Marja’s house, closed up tight against the Tiend. He parked in her driveway and leaned the seat back and smoked and thought about the last time he’d screwed her. A bright sunny afternoon about two weeks ago, all the windows in her bedroom opened up so she could hear the ocean in the background. She’d lain on her belly and buried her face in her pillows when she came, trembling beneath him. Afterwards, she’d fried up fresh shrimp and they’d sat on her couch and watched an old VHS tape of Star Wars that shimmered with static during the best parts.
That memory reminded him of his memories from Before. It seemed so out of place with the grey sky, and the damp chill in the air, and the waves stretching up out of the Gulf.
He wondered if he’d see Marja again. If he’d see anybody again.
The sun dropped towards the horizon, and those grey clouds turned darker and darker.
Luis drove to Shane’s house.
Shane was sitting out on the porch, drinking from that flask of his, looking pale in the purple twilight. Luis parked the truck on the curb, got out, leaned against the roof.
“Frankie here yet?”
Shane shook his head.
Luis went inside. He didn’t feel like sitting out there with Shane, watching him drink and dwell on his goddamn mistakes. He pulled a beer out of the fridge, thought better of it, and filled a glass with water from the tap instead. He flicked on the TV but all the channels were showing either static or Emergency Broadcast screens.
Then Frankie showed up, wearing that cheap windbreaker he never took off once it turned cold, his hands shoved in his pockets. It was nearly eight o’clock.
“Town’s deserted,” he said. “I looped around a couple times. Didn’t see a soul.”
The word soul made Luis feel sick. “Good,” he said. “I don’t want to screw around with this. We should leave now.”
Shane came slinking in. He leaned against the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, and for a minute the three of them stared at each other.
We don’t have to do this, Luis thought. There’s got to be some other way. You could ask Marja--
But by then Shane was already leading the way to Frankie’s car, and Luis knew this was it. Even Marja couldn’t conjure up half a million dollars.
Outside, everything was shadows and darkness. It seemed like half the street lamps were burned out. The clouds blocked the stars and the moon. Luis rode shotgun as Frankie drove to Moody Bank, and all he could see was the patch of road illuminated by the sallow yellow of Frankie’s headlights.
Frankie parked two blocks down. That kid, Mr. Atom, had sworn the security cameras would deactivate the minute Luis walked into the building, the magic erasing the film for the entire night, but Luis wanted to be careful. Still, the kid was right about how easy it was to get inside—Luis laid his hand against the door handle, and heard the locks click out of place.
Same thing with the door leading down to the vault.
Same thing with the vault itself.
They worked together to shove the cash into the duffle bags Shane had brought with him. Every now and then Luis checked his watch—8:45, plenty of time. He counted out the money and set it in stacks of one thousand dollars, but when the bags were full, Shane got pale and shaking and said, “We should recount.”
Frankie groaned and Luis said, “Goddammit, Shane, we don’t got time.” It was 9:15.
“Just to be sure,” Shane said. “It has to be exactly half a million—”
“What we give him has to be half a million,” Frankie said. He grabbed two handfuls of bill stacks and shoved them into the bags. “What we take don’t matter, long as it’s over.”
“We need to go,” said Luis. “I’m not cutting this close.”
“Me neither.” Frankie heaved one bag over his shoulder and tossed the other to Luis. Shane looked unconvinced, but didn’t say anything more, and they strolled out of the bank and back to Frankie’s car without any trouble. Luis doubled back in to check the security room, but the screens showed only grey. Not even static, just grey with an occasional blur of light that streaked across the screen like a comet.
Guess the kid came through.
They drove back to Shane’s house through the dark empty town. The air felt wrong: thick and unmoving, heavy like before a thunderstorm. Only it wasn’t rain that was coming.
The darkness swallowed up all the light. It swallowed up all sounds. Luis could barely hear the sputter and roar of Frankie’s car engine.
But at least they made it to the house.
They carted the duffle bags up to the porch. Shane fumbled around for his key. Stuck it in the lock.
The door didn’t open.
“Stop screwing around,” Luis said. 9:38.
“Key’s stuck.” Luis heard the jangle of metal against metal. “Damn! I can’t get it to turn.”
A muffled, swallowed-up thump as Frankie dropped his duffle bag to the porch. “Let me try.”
“Break a goddamn window,” Luis said.
“What other option we got?” Luis asked. “It’s almost ten o’clock. Nobody’s gonna open their door for us. Break a goddamnwindow.”
“Will the house still be safe—”
Luis didn’t know. “Better that then nothing.”
They walked around to the side of the house. Luis sliced the mosquito screen away with his knife. Frankie shrugged out of his windbreaker and knotted it around his fist, then put his fist through one of the windows there. The glass shattered silently into big silvery chunks. “Damn,” Frankie said. Blood twined down his arm.
Luis shoved his bag through the window. They climbed in one at a time. It was the back bedroom, the one Shane used for storage.
All three of them got cut on the broken glass. Blood smeared across the window pane.
“I don’t like this,” Shane said.
“I don’t like that you’re too stupid to open your own goddamn door.” Luis kicked the duffle bags out into the hallway. Frankie disappeared into the bathroom; Luis could hear water running in the pipes. 10:02. Luis ignored how fast his heart was beating,
“You got something to cover this hole?”
“I got a tarp around here somewhere. I think.”
Luis cursed and pushed past him. Wood would be better. Wood was solid. But they had only ten minutes—nine minutes. Luis wedged himself into the bathroom. Frankie was standing in front of the sink, unmoving, the blood swirling in long bright lines down the drain. Luis grabbed the shower curtain and pulled hard, snapping the curtain rings into pieces. Frankie still didn’t move.
Luis couldn’t deal with that now. He needed to cover the window. The hole into the house.
“Nails?” Luis asked when he came back into the back bedroom. “Hammer?”
Shane was gone.
“Dammit!” Fear coiled up tight in Luis’s stomach. His entire body was cold. “Shane? Where the hell are you?”
A breeze blew through the broken window.
The breeze was humid, sticky with salt and ocean spray, but it smelled like blood and sweetness, like sugar and decay. Luis dropped the shower curtain and raced out of the room and slammed the door shut. He ran into the master bedroom, leaned against Shane’s chest-of-drawers, and shoved with all his strength. It inched across the floor.
“Luis? What are you doing?”
Shane stood in the doorway, holding a blue camping tarp.
“Help me,” Luis said. “We need to block the door. It’s starting.”
Shane went white.
Shane came around to join him and together they pushed the chest-of-drawers out of the master bedroom, into the hallway, toward the back bedroom--
The back bedroom door was open.
All the blood drained out of Luis’s body. For a moment he couldn’t move. He could only stare at that open door.
Then Frankie screamed.
The scream came from the direction of the bathroom, and Luis ran there out of instinct even though he told himself he shouldn’t, he should barricade himself in one of the closets--
Frankie screamed again.
Luis pulled out his knife. They don’t like metal, right? But not during the Tiend. The Tiend was different.
Another scream. Only this one was cut short, a light switch flicking off.
Luis froze in the hallway.
The bathroom door swung open. Light fanned across the floor. A figure lurched out, tall and gaunt. All shadows.
“Frankie?” Luis whispered.
He knew better.
The figure turned to him and it was a man sort of, but one whose body had been stretched up. Its mouth was lined with sharp teeth, its face smeared with blood. It hissed.
The thing chased him.
Luis ran past the bedroom and there was Shane, stretched out on the floor, his eyes glassy, curls of white light seeping around his legs and his stomach, blood pooling thick and dark across the floor. Luis stepped in it and it squelched beneath his boots.
He heard the thing hissing. And then he heard other voices, outside the house, shouting and jeering and laughing, like a party of locusts, rising out of the sea and descending across the coast.
The thing dug its hand into his shoulder, and the entire left side of his body went numb. It dragged him to the floor. Luis stared up at the ceiling.
She didn’t see you die.
The Tiend isn’t about death.
And then, inexplicably, he smelled dune flowers.
Luis woke up in a bed he knew well. The windows were opened and the ocean roared in the background.
It was daytime.
He sat up, his head aching like a hangover. Bits of broken stained glass hung in the window, chiming in the breeze. He had never seen them before.
Marja stood in the doorway, wearing blue jeans and a tank top and a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves.
“Am I in Hell?” Luis asked.
“No.” Marja sat down on the side of the bed smoothed his hair back with her gloved hand, leaving a trail of warm, soapy water across his forehead. “Your friends are.”
Luis closed his eyes. For a few moments he had let himself think everything had been a dream: the job, the Tiend.
“Why?” He looked at Marja. Her face seemed empty. There was no light or warmth in her eyes, the way there used to be. “Why didn’t—”
“The Tiend is a trade,” she said. “Human lives for Faerie ones. I made a trade of my own.”
Luis dropped his head back on the pillow. “You saved me.”
“Faerie owed me.”
Luis felt cold, despite the warmth of the spring sun pouring through the open windows. He was safe, he had to be—but then why did everything feel wrong?
“There’s food in the refrigerator,” said Marja. “In case you’re hungry.” She stood up, shook out her long dark hair.
“Am I safe?” Luis asked. “I mean, really? Is anyone coming for me? Mr. Fatula, what about—”
“You no longer belong to Mr. Fatula.”
“What?” Luis blinked. “He was my boss, that don’t mean I belonged—”
“You belong to me,” said Marja. “That was the trade.”
The glass in the window tinkled like bottles breaking in the middle of the night.
Luis laughed. “Didn’t I already?”
“No.” Marja turned toward the doorway. The hallway beyond the bedroom was dark, dark as pitch.
“Wait, Marja.” Luis pushed himself out of bed. His legs wobbled. “Thanks for saving me. I probably didn’t deserve it, I mean—”
Marja looked at him with her big stormy grey eyes.
“Do I get to be your love slave?”
She didn’t answer.
Luis leaned against the wall to steady himself. “Guess that’s a no.”
“You should eat something,” Marja said.
Luis grinned at her. Everything still felt wrong. The sunlight and the dark hallway. The stained glass in the window. Marja in her yellow plastic gloves. Each time he opened his mouth he thought he could weave a story in which everything would feel right again.
“So I guess belonging to you is better than being dragged to Hell, huh?”