They were totally right, I love the Crossroads. This place is the best.
It’s this rickety old-school bar sat on a literal crossroads of two dusty old forgotten highways in a state I won’t tell you. Just like, rocky desert and cactus for as for as the eye can see. It looks so old that literal actual old school cowboys might have drank there. There’s even a hitching post out in front.
We parked in the dusty parking lot. Unlike at the Red Rock Inn when they were going to face the Scelerat’s, the Hawthornes were totally at ease, smiling and stretching as we got out of the car and walked across the parking lot.
“Alright,” Neal said, pausing by the door. “Not that you would but let’s not mention the business with the siren, alright?”
I glanced up at him.
“Trust us,” Julian said. “This crowd would not approve of how that went down.”
I nodded and they opened the doors.
Inside was dark and smelled like sweet grass and beer. It was shabby but clean. The wood panel walls were decorated with horse shoes and antlers. One corner had a low stage with microphone equipment against the wall. Behind the bar was decorated with alcohol bottles and old wooden beer casks. It was charmingly old-fashioned.
“Well, well!” said the woman behind the bar. She was maybe in her fifties and somewhat weathered, but her grin as she came around the bar to greet us took years off her. She was wearing cowboy boots, and not flashy ones either, but a scuffed pair that looked like they’d been through the ringer.
“Hello boys,” she said, embracing them warmly. There was a maternal anxiety in her expression as she peered up into their faces. She patted Julian’s cheek and he grinned, slightly bashful under her scrutiny. “Come on in, I’ll make you a drink.”
It wasn’t until we were all following her inside that she noticed me. “Well for goodness sake, I forgot you picked up a stray!” she exclaimed. “You must be that miracle girl everyone’s buzzing about.”
Miracle girl. Oh good.
“Val this is Shiloh,” Julian said. “Shiloh this is Valerie Oshmar. She’s a hunter, one of the best.”
“Oh you,” Valerie laughed. “I used to be a hunter,” she told me. “Now I’m a fat happy bartender.”
And she certainly seemed happy as she went about making up drinks, though her definition of fat was pretty loose because while she filled up her flannel it wasn’t like a big flannel or anything. She looked like an athlete that hadn’t stopped eating like an athlete after her sporting days were through.
She was just asking if we were hungry — I was, starving, I swear they don’t feed me — when the saloon doors between the bar and the kitchen opened and out strode this GIRL.
I swear the world went into slow motion when this girl came into the room. She was wearing these cut off denim shorts and busted up old cowboy boots and a nondescript tank top, taking her hair out of it’s scrunchie, all long and thick and wavy and dark, cascading down her back and I’m sure I was absolutely gaping at her when her big brown doe eyes landed on Neal and Julian.
I just about fell off my bar stool when she smiled hahahahahaha.
She didn’t just smile of course. She beamed and squealed and like launched herself into Julian’s arms. I’ve never seen Julian that openly excited about anything — he picked her up and she wrapped her long brown legs around his middle, both of them totally incoherent.
“These two,” Neal said, taking the beer Valerie offered him and rolling his eyes. But then the girl disentangled from Julian and gave Neal this fierce, bared-teeth smile and he laughed and got up to greet her too. It was all so enthusiastic and intimate, that suddenly I realized that I’m the loneliest most pathetic little runaway on this sad damp planet.
They were just so all over each other in this easy, platonic, puppyish way — like close cousins, finally rescuing each other from good behavior at a family reunion. And there I was, no one, some creature they were reluctantly landed with on a hunt.
“Bev this is Shiloh,” Julian said, slightly breathless and grinning, completely oblivious to my misery.
“Hi,” Bev said, offering a big, brown hand. She had a wide, plump mouth and was absolutely beaming at me. “I’m Beverly. You’re the poor girl that got stuck with these two miscreants.”
I took her hand and grinned queasily at her, feeling approximately twelve.
“I’ve heard all sorts of mysterious stories about you,” Bev said, eyes sparkling, like we were both in on a great joke. I wanted to pull her hair but couldn’t decide if it was a rage and envy thing or a lust thing.
“She’s not that mysterious,” Neal said. “What you see is pretty much what you get.” I wanted to sink into the earth but no one noticed because Neal said, “now who wants to tell us why we’re here?”
Beverly flashed a big grin. “Probably better if we just show you,” she said. She made a face. “You’re not gonna like it though. Come on, we’ll take the truck.”
We piled into Beverly’s rusty old pickup. Julian rode shotgun, so Neal and I climbed up into the bed. I made a point to ignore him the whole way, not that he noticed. He watched the desert roll by, wind ruffling his hair, expression inscrutable. Asshole. WHaT yOu SeE iS pReTtY mUcH wHaT yOu GeT. Literally I hate him.
Beverly turned off the highway at an unmarked road, then onto a long dirt road.We bumped along for maybe ten minutes and then finally came to a halt at a dilapidated shack that may once have been a house.
“There was a rift here a couple weeks ago,” Beverly was saying as she cut the engine and climbed out of the truck. “Opened and closed pretty much immediately, no harm no foul. But it must have let out a whole mess of spook juice because we’ve had an absolutely out of control infestation of Blight Rats since. They’ve been spotted all the way in town.”
“You couldn’t handle some Blight Rats on your own?” Neal scoffed, vaulting out of the truck bed.
Beverly shot him a look, half scornful, half amused.
“Wait til you see this infestation,” she said. “We’ve been straight up poisoning them, and it hasn’t even left a dent. We’re about to call in everyone we know, get out the guns and make a sport of it, but we thought we’d give you two a whack at it first.”
Neal scoffed again. “We’re honored.”
“You should be,” Beverly said. “I could have used the target practice.”
Meanwhile, in an effort to seem like I was ignoring their banter (I wasn’t) I was scanning the cracked glass windows, trying to make anything out in the gloom. There were two wide disks hanging in the window, and I was trying figure out what they were — maybe crystals? — when they blinked and something the size of cat dropped off the windowsill.
I gripped Julian’s arm.
He pricked an eyebrow at me, then smiled when he saw where I was looking.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “These aren’t so bad.”
“Tell that to Kimberly Southhouse’s daughter,” Beverly said.
“Oh shit, how bad?” Julian asked.
“The girls’ totally dish-eyed. Hasn’t blinked or said a word in a week.”
“…so what exactly does a Blight Rat….do?” I asked as we crunched through the gravel towards the house.
And then I got an answer that was muddled at best and also interjected with commentary from Beverly, who was a lot less impartial than the Hawthornes. I’ll give you the abridged version:
To the best of my understanding a Blight Rat is a creature about the size and stature of a raccoon, that has spooky over-sized eyes. They eat magic. So, when a rift opens up and magic pours out of it, Blight Rats show up there to feast.
Trouble is that sometimes magic from other worlds can make us sick. Julian described it as sick, anyways, but Neal and Beverly scoffed and/or grimaced so I’m guessing it’s probably a little bit more complicated than just like …the flu. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I’m guessing it’s not pretty.
Anyways — magic can make people sick, Blight Rats are attracted to magic. The real trouble is that they sorta store magic too, and carry it with them. Julian said like a camel carries water, but Beverly said like a rat carries the plague.
So when lots of Blight Rats collect in a place it makes it more likely for people to be exposed to harmful magic from other dimensions. At least that’s the gist of what they told me while we checked the perimeter of the house and then finally climbed the sagging porch, and opened the door to go in.
I don’t know what I was expecting when we opened the door. Lol, no I actually totally do know what I was expecting. I thought it was gonna be like one of those hoarder houses full of cats.
… and you know it was sorta like that? But mostly it wasn’t. Mostly it was like walking into a room full of furry corpses. Blood and guts smeared fucking everywhere. Huge traps with scraps of mutilated Blight Rat in them. One must have gone off recently because though the Blight Rat had been crushed across the neck, it’s back leg was still twitching. And that’s not even to start on the SMELL.
“Oh shit,” Beverly said.
I lurched outside and did my best not to puke off the porch.
“Shit,” Beverly said again. “We mentioned the case to —” she stopped.
“To who?” Neal growled.
Beverly groaned. “The Walthers,” she admitted, and then quickly added, “I’m sure they just meant to help us out!”
Neal was basically vibrating with rage, but it was Julian’s expression that startled me. Julian, who was usually so even keeled, looked ready to fucking kill someone.
“Who are the Walthers?” I asked, trying to stand upwind from the open door.
“Assholes,” Neal said.
“Hunters,” Beverly corrected. “Damn good hunters.” Her voice was all reproachful. “Who were trying to make sure that what happened to that little girl in town didn’t happen to anyone else.”
“I need a minute,” Julian said. His voice was strained and he was already stalking out across the dirt towards the car.
“Shit,” Beverly said.
“You okay?” Neal called and Julian gave him the thumbs up but didn’t turn around or break stride.
“Shit,” Beverly said again. “Is he—”
“He said he’s fine,” Neal snapped and I just stood there staring at all of them, confused as hell.
So THAT definitely seems like some old drama.
“Look,” Beverly said, lowering her voice so Julian wouldn’t hear. “You got a better way to deal with all of them? Where are we gonna put them?”
Neal looked PISSED. Blind rage all over his face. He said, “Give me a couple days.” Then he stormed out to join Julian.
So on the bright side after that I wasn’t really jealous of Beverly after that hahahaha.