Gretta threw her head back in a shivering convulsion. Her arms reached behind her, forcing her shoulder-blades to fight for space over vertebrae. Her elbows knocked together as her hands searched for solid earth. Her feet rose off the ground. Her uniform skirt, shoelaces, and ponytail flapped like streamers at a carnival closed by a hurricane.
She cried out, but the frail scream was choked by an endless chorus of tortured souls layered into a deep well of sound. Her mouth grew wide to reveal a field of clawed fingers barely covered by successive sets of old, cracked lips.
In the vortex of her interior, visible only by powers looking down upon her, a great black eye emerged. It twitched eagerly, occupying her chest cavity, squashing her heart, bubbling up her windpipe as it tried to observe a world it had not seen in a millennium. As much as she was aware, Gretta did not feel pain. It was actually quite the opposite. She felt anger toward those who had wronged her and her kind, and she felt hunger. Of course, this crowd of conflict had gestated inside her for as long as she could remember, but her new toys had helped it take root and flower.
Meanwhile, Josh stood on the edge of the lawn. His look was dazed, his eyes wreathed in dark, puffy circles of flesh. His forehead was wide and pockmarked, folding down into a troubled, Cro-Magnon brow and his mouth was wet from a tongue that compulsively roamed its perimeter in an effort to keep the taste of the world—a flavor both deadly and irresistible—at bay.
He watched as his sister’s cheeks tore at the oral commissures, ripping back to the hinge of her jaw to make way for long, white, elegant fingers. The sliding digits erupted at all angles, planting themselves on either side of her nose, down the side of her face, and bending around the curve of her chin.
Josh licked his lips and shuffled his feet, but he was saved from having to make a decision when the clean, white van skidded to a stop in the street behind him.
Agent Barnes wrenched open the driver’s door, which creaked on skewed hinges. He emerged with the tempered urgency of a professional, pulling his department-issued blazer taut across his muscular shoulders and fastening only the top button.
On the other side, Father Quinlan slid out of a cracked door and pressed himself against the side of the vehicle.
“Are you Joshua Crockett?” Barnes had to yelp over Gretta’s rising laughter.
Josh gave a curt nod without looking at the agent.
“You’ve been sending these reports about your sibling’s deterioration,” Barnes checked the notes on his digital watch. “In connection to hazardous artifacts in her possession?”
“I don’t know if I ever called it deterioration, but yeah, a couple of times I called a number I found on the dark web, if that’s what you mean,” Josh mumbled. “Hackers and conspiracy people are so lame, you know?”
“Did you get the didgeridoo?” Quinlan hollered. He was still pressed against the van, his clergy collar as lopsided as his priorities.
Josh finally turned his attention away from Gretta. “You mean that hollow stick? Yeah, we got it about a week ago. Gretta played with it all day then started speaking Swahili or some shit.”
“Pintupi?!” Quinlan blurted.
“He’s asking if your sister was speaking Pintupi,” Barnes cut in. “It’s an aboriginal Australian dialect. Is there any way your sister could have had access to that language?”
“Hell no,” Josh quickly responded. “She’s dumb as they come. She even played with that bone what was the first thing they sent me.”
Barnes looked back at the Father for confirmation. Quinlan nodded his head and yelled, “That was the metacarpal of Khalid. Sixth century. The uniting oracle of the Seven Clans. Missing from the museum for a month.”
“Are you aware that you have been the victim of a vicious plot to infect human hosts with an interconnective supernatural energy?” Barnes furrowed his brow and leaned in, making sure Josh understood he was serious.
“Yeah,” Josh shrugged. “I figured it was something like that.”
“Did you knowingly receive black-market totems and talismans?”
“Hell no,” now Josh turned to Barnes. “I thought they were going to send me something fucking rad. Not all these haunted old pieces of junk. Gretta swallowed the stupid bone. She’s been sleeping with the doll, swinging the hollow stick around, playing ‘store’ with the coins, playing ‘house’ with the rings and the candlestick. She’s even been wearing that stupid little schoolgirl dress like mom has enough cash to send her off somewhere. I mean, I teased her, did my best, but she just told me she would drink my warm blood from the Chalice of the Elders, whatever that means.”
“The… The Chalice,” Quinlan said in disbelief as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Did you receive a package with The Chalice?”
Josh looked angrily at Barnes, “Really, I ain’t received shit. If anyone’s in trouble, it should be her. She’s the one been scrawling a bunch of garbage about the great mother and the fall of the captors all over her bedroom wall.”
He pointed at Gretta just as her body ripped entirely in two. Her frail and vulnerable disguise fell to the grass with a meaty thud as a new, cohesive form emerged.
“And I wasn’t the only winner,” Josh said accusingly. “There were people all over who were gonna get stuff. I think it should be noted that I thought it was junk and Gretta thought it was cool.”
Barnes said nothing. Much of the vital information in this investigation was classified at a level beyond his own pay grade. His orders, and his association with Quinlan, had been arranged by men in shadows, men who wore medals as well as robes. Men who were afraid.
“The people who ran the contest,” Quinlan spoke with too much urgency. “The Daughters of the Hereafter. Did you ever have direct contact with them? Did they have some way to get in touch?”
“What, like a complaints department?” Josh could feel his need for an ice cream sandwich growing. “Don’t you think I would have tried that?”
“Are you playing with us, son?” Barnes could not understand how someone could be so dense.
“Shoot,” Josh confessed. “I can’t even tell if what’s happening is bad or good.”
“Bad,” both institutional servants shouted simultaneously.
Josh’s eyes widened in realization. He pointed at the creature. “Holy crap. Is this a common thing now?”
“Absolutely Not/Yes!” Barnes and Quinlan spoke at the same time again but veered into their own ideologies and motivations.
“Look,” Barnes shook his hand at the adolescent, trying to refocus. “We have to know exactly how long, and through what means your sister has been manipulated. She may be in great danger.”
“I think we might be the ones in danger, dude,” Josh guessed.
“I AM GRETTA!” the thing on the lawn roared toward the sky. “EATER OF MAN AND BRINGER OF THE NEW WAY!”
“There may be consequences beyond the mortal realm here, sir. Our whole society might be at risk,” Quinlan cried helplessly.
“Shut up!” Now it was Barnes and Josh who spoke in unison.
Josh looked at the creature on the lawn. It consisted of dozens of thin fingers acting as legs. One was still clutching the ragged doll. The hilts of the fingers converged in an orb of black matter, an all-seeing eyeball, the deep pond of the infinite. However, Gretta’s neat, buoyant ponytail remained perched on top of the collective.
Josh pointed. “If you have to file a report or something, why don’t you just write up the situation as ‘critical’?”
“The NSA does not acknowledge the existence of entities derived from, or existing solely as a result of, occult activity, spiritual uprisings, or cumulative energies. My job is to appraise whether there is an imminent security threat as a result of packages shipped from ‘persons unknown,’ with the intent of causing panic or mayhem on U.S. soil.”
“Now, agent Barnes,” Quinlan finally found his strength. “Remember, the church has a vested interest in this situation as well. If we could secure some viable proof of influential evil…”
“You mean how those toys made my sister so angry she tore open?” Josh was still pointing.
“Maybe she was already angry?” Barnes offered.
“...it would make a fairly sound case for a converse deity,” Quinlan trailed off.
“You mean, like, if you could convince people that things like this exist and that they were ‘evil,’ then maybe your old, bearded white guy in the sky is real too, and that he’s the good guy?” Josh summarized. “I don’t know, mister. That doesn’t even sound right to me, and I hate every girl at my school.”
“Gentlemen!” Barnes baked, looking up from his watch. “We have to keep our heads here. First of all, we need to contain the…”
At that moment, the creature leapt from the knoll of its genesis and tackled Barnes. The masculine agent’s scream was delayed by his surprise, then immediately squelched by the swirling vortex of limbs.
There was a suffocating drain in the air as Gretta exhibited her new strength. The fingers wrapped around Barnes’ muscular frame and squeezed until his insides squirted through the gaps in her grip. The evacuating skin and muscles and fluid were not there to mute the crunch as his body was broken.
Then Barnes’ corpse fell to the pavement. The creature recovered cleanly, landing softly on the wet turf. It crouched on its haunches, bobbing over the lifeless body.
Josh and Quinlan stood perfectly still. They did not want to provoke it.
The beast cocked its eyeball toward the horizon. It searched, analyzing until it detected a signal. Then a loud roar came from somewhere inside it, from another world perhaps, and it galloped away, leaving the scene as quickly as it had materialized.
After a few moments of isolated internal struggle, Josh strode across the lawn to scoop up the sloppy, shed skin of his sister.
“So,” he said as he draped the evacuated cocoon over his shoulder, “I guess things are going to be different now. If you want me to, like, go on any religious TV shows or anything, we’ll need to talk price first.”
Quinlan stood with his mouth agape. Now he saw that, perhaps, Armageddon was necessary. He could feel the power draining from his ideology like sand through an hourglass.
“But you might have to convince my parents, you know?” Josh said as he threw a judgmental look at the house. “I’ll show them this junk and tell them about the conspiracy against me and everything, but I might still get grounded anyway. They’re always projecting their failures on me.”
With that, he left Quinlan on the lawn to contemplate his faith. The priest dabbed at his forehead with a silk handkerchief and thought of Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Jezebel, Salome, even Eve. His stomach crumpled into a ball of tight cramps.