Awareness

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Deke landed heavily on his back, cracking his head against a straw-strewn earthen floor. Dazed from the impact, it wasn’t until he heard a horse whicker that he realized he was somehow in the stables. The strange living walls of Porfirio’s monument had been replaced by familiar wood planks, the confusing geometry abandoned for the comforting simple angles of the stalls.

The stench of Ol’ Sal’s death still lingered lightly here, seeming to ooze out from the walls themselves. Deke climbed slowly to his feet, rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, and made his way out into the final grey light of evening.

Something was wrong outside. Deke noticed it well before he could put his finger on what it was, a lifetime of carefully-honed instincts screaming caution at him. He breathed slowly and looked casually around himself, but the area around him was empty and the night sounds were normal.

It wasn’t until Deke looked up that he spotted what was bothering him: the stars overhead weren’t forming any sort of constellations that he recognized. He could see bits of what might have been familiar patterns, but the pieces were fractured, scattered across the sky. It was like the sky had been bunched up and sewn together along the creases. The seams were invisible, but the effects were obvious.

This didn’t seem to be the sort of problem that Deke could address at the current moment, so he filed it away and headed for the boarding house. The problem of not having supper was one that could be fixed in a timely fashion.

As he headed toward the house, Deke realized that between the trip to the monument and whatever had gone on inside of it, he hadn’t managed to set a single snare all day. He cursed quietly to himself and began sifting his brain for an acceptable excuse or deflection. Plenty of wild animals with sharp teeth; plenty of ways for simple traps to fail. The trick was not to paint himself in a bad light.

Deke was still sorting through his options when he saw Elmer and Cora Everill up ahead, walking along the main street toward their house at the edge of town. They were accompanied by a stern-looking woman closer to Deke’s age walking a pace behind them, a hand on each of their shoulders. Deke thought at first that they were leading her, but as he drew closer he saw that her hands were not supportive, but restraining. She appeared to be trying to push the two apart, perhaps to wedge her way in between. If Elmer and Cora were bothered by this, though, or even noticed, they gave no sign.

“Evening, Deke!” called Elmer. Cora gave a small wave. The unfamiliar woman ignored him completely.

“Evening, Everills. Ma’am,” Deke said politely. Cora gave him a slightly quizzical look, but changed it to a smile.

As he walked along, Deke wondered idly who the woman was. Either Elmer or Cora’s mother, likely. He could have made a case for either one of them based on similarities in facial structure and build.

Deke was opening the front door of the boarding house before the import struck him. There was someone new in Rosin’s Hollow. Who this woman was didn’t matter compared to how she had gotten there. If there was a way in, there was a way out. Presumably, at least. And if not, at least there was a way for the supply wagon to arrive.

“In or out, Deke, but close my door either way,” Clarinda called down the hall.

“Apologies, Miz Blaumer.” Deke hesitated a moment longer, uncertain whether he should go after the Everills now. “Who’s the new arrival?”

“The what?” Clarinda stepped out of the kitchen to hear Deke more clearly. A look of amused shock crossed her face. “Deke, what have you done to yourself?”

“Your—” Although Miz Blaumer was dressed as neatly as ever, her right hand ran with blood, great rivulets of it dripping from her fingers. It should have been forming a small lake on the floor, but where it hit the ground it vanished entirely. “Sorry, what?”

“Your face.” Clarinda raised her bloody hand to her own eyes, gesturing. Droplets of blood flew everywhere, disappearing where they should have landed. A bright red handprint stood out on her left cheek, the edges slightly raised against the surrounding skin as if she had just been slapped. At her neck, the edges of a symbol glowed, something painted onto her skin beneath her dress.

Clarinda seemed unaware of any of this. “Did you fall into something?”

“Oh, this.” Deke touched his right eye where Porfirio had smeared the black gunk. It felt dry to the touch, but his fingers still came away blackened. Pieces began to click into place. Father McCaig, who could see too much. Reveal. The wolf consuming Porfirio. The stern woman. Miz Blaumer’s bloody hand. Deke didn’t know what any of it meant, but at least he understood why it was happening.

“Yes, that. What did you think I meant?”

Deke smiled, slipping into the expression like a familiar lie. “It’s been a long day in the sun, Miz Blaumer. Could be any of a number of things wrong with my appearance at this point. But to your question, I was digging in a mudhole to get some water. I aimed to soak my shirt, cool off a bit. Managed to snap a root in half, I think. I didn’t properly see what happened, but one minute I was digging and the next there was this stick quivering in the water and I had two eyesful of mud. Had the devil’s own time cleaning it off, too. And I never did get to any water I was willing to dunk my shirt in.”

Clarinda laughed. “Well, there’s water and soap here, and you can’t sit at my table looking like that. Go clean yourself off and I’ll see what I can do for you for dinner.

“Much appreciated.”

As soon as Clarinda had returned to the kitchen, however, Deke slipped back outside. He had a mind to see what the path out of town looked like, find out if anything was clearer. Even by moonlight, he might learn something new.

These thoughts were driven from Deke’s mind as soon as he stepped outside and saw the raging inferno burning down the street. The saloon was on fire, flames leaping upward to touch the broken sky. The entire building was engulfed. Fire spat from every window and danced through gaping holes in the roof. The interior was a hellscape.

Deke broke into a run, but his steps faltered as three things processed. The first was that the fire made no noise. There was no crackle, no rush of air, no groaning of falling timbers. It burned brightly but completely without sound.

The second thing that slowed Deke’s steps was that he could see figures inside, moving about as if nothing was wrong. Even from here he could see the gangly shape of Will Long, tending bar even as his body burned. He showed no signs of distress.

And the third thing, which finally brought Deke to a complete halt in the middle of the street, was that he had seen this before. Not the calm figures inside, and not in eerie silence—but the saloon had burned down before. Shortly after he had arrived in Rosin’s Hollow, it had caught fire and claimed the lives of a half-dozen of the remaining citizens of the town. It had been one more nail in the coffin of Rosin’s Hollow, and with so few people left, the saloon had never been replaced.

Which raised the question: where had he been drinking so many nights recently?


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