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The sky is luminous pink, melting into a fiery amber down toward the horizon. The clouds glow like spun gold. The air is still warm, and full of the scent of jasmine flowers. I am playing the stream of the hose over the garden beds, and every time the spray hits a jasmine tendril, the fragrance blooms like an intangible version of the flowers themselves.
I should be doing something more practical than watering the garden. But it’s nice to take a moment to relax, without having to worry about the Vile.
Still, he’s never very far from my mind.
If I do allow myself to think about the Vile, and what he is no doubt doing in some other realm right at this very moment, my stomach knots up and I feel like he’s standing right behind me, slowly reaching out to dig those talons into my shoulder... so I try not to think about it. Instead, I indulge in thinking about my other major problem.
“Mondo, how long have you known Raff?” I ask.
Mondo is sitting on the grass, gazing serenely at the sunset. My question seems to snap him out of some sort of canine trance.
‘A long time,’ he replies. ‘We’ve known each other since we were pups. Or at least, since I was pup and he was a boy.’
‘What was he like back then?’
‘Not nearly interested enough in chasing cattle,’ Mondo says.
‘No, come on, really. What was he like?’
‘He was always distracted by something. When we were mustering cattle, he’d be looking at the clouds or trying to get the calves to come to him. From a working dog’s perspective, it was very frustrating. Still, we all liked him a lot. He had a lot of depth in his spirits.’
I frown at him. ‘Wait a minute. His spirits? You knew about multiple spirits even when you were just an ordinary dog?’
‘Of course. Just because we animals don’t have souls doesn’t mean we can’t see them.’
I gape at him. ‘Let me get this straight. You can see spirits?’
‘Well, it’s probably more accurate to say that we sense them. And we don’t sense all of them; just the most prominent ones. For example, right now…’ He squints at me like an old man who can’t find his glasses… ‘I can make out a faint shadow of your gesh.’
‘Your gesh. It’s like a little light on your temples. It looks good and healthy. And I can also sense your qui. Hmm; it’s rich. There’s a nice tang to it.’
I wince. ‘You make it sound like a barbecue sauce.’
Mondo shrugs. ‘Well, I sense it through smell as much as anything.’
‘Can you sense Raff’s gesh and qui?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he replies, ‘but I sense other things about him. He has a good soul. His morl is flighty. Sometimes I can just about see his legihusen, but it only comes near the surface very occasionally.’
‘So you see different spirits in different people.’
‘Yes. It makes you humans all the more interesting,’ Mondo replies. Then his face seems to cloud over, and he looks down sadly at the ground. ‘Ah, yes, that reminds me.’
‘Reminds you of what?’
He sighs, as if at a painful memory. ‘Just the first time I ever saw a Vile.’
‘You’ve seen a Vile before?’ I ask, and then the implication of what he said hits me like a slap. ‘You saw a Vile in a person? When was this?’
‘Oh, many years ago. It’s one of my earliest memories.’
‘Well, go on,’ I prompt impatiently.
‘There were twelve pups in my litter, and my farmer, Raff’s uncle, advertised to sell us to other cattle farmers in the district. Well, one day a man arrived at the farm looking for a dog. But even when he was still in his car, we could all sense that something was wrong. From a distance we dogs see most people with a gentle kind of glow about them, but this man was like a dark, dangerous hole. My mother slowly started growling, and as he approached us, we could see it.’
Mondo nods. ‘The Vile, like a shadow, drifting at his left, and all his other spirits clustered on his right, trying to be as far away from the Vile as possible. The tension between them was electric. We could tell that the Vile despised the other spirits, and they hated him in return. The air itself seemed to crackle around them.’
‘Well, we were only pups – we were terrified! We just cowered behind our mother and whimpered. She wanted to protect us, of course, but she was just a dumb dog, and there wasn’t much she could do.’
‘Fortunately, the presence of the Vile was so strong that even the farmer, who was as practical a man as ever existed, felt it and instinctively shied away from it. The man with the Vile wanted to buy one of my sisters, but the farmer made up some story about us being too young, and told him to come back some other time. The man left, and we never saw him again. All the pups were sold except me and one of my brothers, and we stayed on the farm. I don’t know if he got a dog somewhere else.’
I realise that one sodden patch of garden has had the hose on it for several minutes. I twitch it away.
‘It’s funny,’ Mondo comments sadly. ‘As a normal dog I never would have remembered that encounter so vividly, but now that I do, it makes my fur crawl. That poor man; trapped with an angry, impotent Vile his entire life. It’d be like living in a house where all you could ever hear is screaming.’
With the sun fallen well below the horizon, the air has started to chill. I turn off the hose, and we go back inside.
‘I wonder what happened to that man?’ I say.
‘Beat his wife, molested his children, tortured his dog, hated himself,’ Mondo says grimly. ‘Take your pick. His life was doomed from conception. My guess is he’d be dead by now, or desperately wish he was.’
I drop onto the couch. ‘It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it.’
‘It does. You may have a Vile after you, but your spirits are strong and united. You have me to help you. And of course you have Raff. That’s worth a lot.’
‘Yeah, I guess so.’
‘What do you mean, you guess so?’
I don’t want to go into this right now, but it seems to bubble up out of me of its own accord. ‘Well, do I have Raff?’ I ask him. ‘Is this really something special? I love him… or at least I think I love him… but he seems so… intangible. I just can’t read him.’
Mondo stares at me for a few seconds, as if wondering what to make of me.
‘How can you have been sentient all your life, and be twice as old as me, and still not see what’s right in front of you?’ he says.
‘Well I’m sorry, but I don’t see what’s right in front of me,’ I protest. Then I add, ‘And I am not twice as old as you! That would make me, like, thirty!’
Suddenly there’s a gleam of triumph in his eye, and he says smugly, ‘Thank you, Carrie, for proving my point. I know you’re not really twice as old as me.’ He breaks into a low doggy chuckle. ‘You’re just like the farmer – everything has to be properly measured and have an instruction book and be set in concrete.’
I scowl at him. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Are you waiting for Raff to present you with an itemised list of his feelings and intentions? Do you want him to sign some sort of Boyfriend Declaration? You’ll be waiting a long time if you are. That’s not the way his kind operate.’
‘His kind?’ I ask
‘Artists,’ Mondo says dismissively, and blows a raspberry. ‘Give a solid sensible farmer any day.’
I search for some devastating retort, but before I can think of anything Mondo’s ears prick up and he stares intently at the front door. A cold dread creeps over me. I can hear something moving outside.
The front door creaks open on its elderly hinges, and I see a hand on the door knob… but it doesn’t have talons.
‘Hi there,’ Raff says with one of his engaging smiles. ‘Sorry I’m late. The car wouldn’t start and I had to catch the bus. I sat next to this guy who kept saying I was sent by the CIA to kill him.’
Raff is so preoccupied with his brush with insanity that he fails to notice me struggling to remember how to breathe again. Mondo just barks at him happily – he knew who it was all along.
We have leftovers for dinner. Raff and I eat at the little dining table, with Mondo sitting alertly in the kitchen door, practicing pathetic and hungry expressions. Argyle also makes an appearance, sidling aloofly past the dog and curling his body around my ankles.
Is it love that allows you to ignore imperfections? The light in the dining room is not flattering, and Raff hasn’t shaved and his hair is wild and greasy. Maybe it’s the cask wine we’re drinking. I stand up suddenly, lean over the table, and kiss him before he can fork more fettuccine into his mouth.
I sit back down and busy myself with my cutlery. When I raise my eyes, I find him looking at me, giving me that irresistible smile.
‘What was that for?’ he asks.
‘A friend of mine told me that I was too analytical,’ I reply. ‘I just wanted to do something spontaneous. Just to see how it felt.’
Mondo snorts, and looks embarrassed.
‘So how did it feel?’ Raff asks.
‘It felt… rewarding,’ I admit, and I’m horrified to think that I might be blushing.
‘I like the spontaneous you,’ Raff says. ‘But then I like the analytical you too.’
And just like that, it all clicks into place. After dinner Raff suggests going for a walk, and we stroll through the dark streets of Parambah without fear of Viles or serial killers, just talking and walking, letting our hands brush together with each step. I feel sort of stupid, being moved this much closer to Raff by a single, spontaneous act, but then I guess part of love’s charm is in its stupidity. I stop worrying about whether or not I love Raff or whether or not he loves me, and it seems it sorts itself out. Damn irony.
We get home and sit on the couch for a while, sipping more wine and listening to my favourite Sweet Blue Midnights CD, talking occasionally in low, soft voices. Half a dozen times I open my mouth to tell him about the Vile, about Argyle and Mondo, about the spiritual battle going on around us, but I can’t make the first word come out, and I take another sip or he kisses me. Both are good.
When we go to bed I pretend that I can see his spirits the way Mondo does – a shifting field of lights and sensations.
I wake in the middle of the night, and automatically look to the window. No Vile, of course. I don’t want to get out of this warm, comfortable bed, but I find I need to go to the toilet. I get up reluctantly and wander down the hallway to the bathroom.
I’m washing my hands when I hear a tiny swishing sound, coming from somewhere in the hall, then the soft groan of something being dragged over the wooden floorboards. I strain to hear more, then I nearly jump out of my skin as something thuds against the bathroom door.
It’s several seconds before I can move. The hallway is silent again. I turn the door knob and let the door open just a crack. It stops after half an inch. I can just see the back of something large blocking the door. It takes me a moment to recognise it. It’s a massive old oak credenza, probably one of the original furnishings that’s been in the hall since the house was built. Someone a lot stronger than me has shifted it to trap me in the bathroom.
I catch a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye.
There’s a face in the window, blurred by the rippled glass. ‘Carrie!’ it calls. ‘It’s me, Mondo! Are you okay?’
I push the window open. Mondo is standing on his hind legs with his front paws on the outside wall. His nose barely clears the window sill.
‘Mondo, what’s going on?’ I whisper.
‘It’s the Vile!’ he cries shakily. ‘He’s here! Oh Carrie, I didn’t think he’d be strong enough to stay in the physical realm. You’ve got to get out of here!’
‘The Vile?’ All the comfortable warmth of the previous evening drains out of me, briskly and completely.
‘Yes!’ the old dog replies. ‘Come on! You’ve got to run!’
‘But… but I can’t! Someone’s blocked the door with a cupboard from the hall. I can’t open the door! I’m trapped!’
‘Are there any Minions outside the door?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so.’
Mondo’s brow crinkles. ‘That’s odd. Wait here a moment’ He drops down and I hear him scampering away into the darkness.
‘Mondo!’ I cry in disbelief.
Hours seem to pass before the dog’s head pops up again. ‘I looked. There are two in the hall, but all the rest are on the front verandah.’
‘Where’s the Vile?’ I ask urgently.
‘Oh, he’ll be lurking somewhere, waiting for the Minions to remove any obstacles. But why are they all at the front of the house when they should be guarding you back here? It doesn’t make sense. It’s almost as if…’
He stops, and looks blankly into the middle distance.
‘Almost as if what?’ I hiss.
It’s a few seconds before he whispers, ‘Almost as if you’re not the one.’
‘I’m not the one?’ I echo. ‘But Argyle told me that I was.’
‘Argyle’s an idiot,’ Mondo replies suddenly. ‘And I’m a blind old fool.’
‘Why?’ I cry in frustration. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘The deep dimensional energies centre around this house, and you’re the only one who lives here, so we both just made the logical assumption that you were the source. But there was an alternative we never considered.’
‘It’s not you, Carrie. It’s Raff.’
I didn’t think I could feel any colder, but suddenly it’s like an icy hand has closed around my heart. ‘The Vile wants Raff?’
Mondo looks grim. ‘Oh, I’m very sure he made the same mistake Argyle and I made, initially. But he’s realised now.’
‘Raff? But Mondo, Raff’s alone in the bedroom! The Vile’s probably there right now! We’ve got to stop him!’ I push the bathroom window open as wide as I can, but it’s tiny – there’s no way I’ll fit through it. I look up at the ceiling, hoping that there’s an inspection hatch or something, but of course there isn’t.
Mondo seems to be in a daze. ‘Yes,’ he mutters, ‘it all makes sense now. I always knew there was something about that boy. Damn! Why didn’t I see it before?’
He frowns at me, then snaps out of it.
‘There’s no time to lose,’ he says. ‘I can get rid of the Minions. You’ll have to get out of that bathroom any way you can and get to Raff. You’ll be safe together. Now hurry!’
‘Are you sure you can handle all of those Minions?’
I see that little gleam in his eye again, and he says, ‘I didn’t spend fifteen years as a cattle dog without learning a few tricks in crowd control. Trust me.’ Then he drops down and vanishes into the shadows.
Seconds later, I hear his claws scritching along the boards of the back verandah.
There’s a burst of angry barking, and a foul, inhuman squeal. I hear the two Minions outside the bathroom running down the hall and out the back door.
Mondo has given me my only chance. I brace my feet against the toilet, wedge my shoulder against the door, and push. The credenza doesn’t move at all. I try again, but it’s solid oak, designed to last for decades.
But I can’t give up. I only discovered I had a boyfriend a few hours ago, and I’m not ready to lose him. I shove once more, with absolutely everything I have.
If the hall was carpeted, I wouldn’t have a chance. But the floor is polished wood, slick enough for the credenza to slide out, albeit with agonising slowness. I can only push it a couple of inches with my shoulder, but that’s enough space for me to jam my foot in the gap and force it out a little more. Then I press my back against the door and heave. It creaks open still further, until it’s just about far enough. Out the bathroom window I catch a glimpse of Mondo racing by, pursued by at least a dozen Minions.
My muscles are trembling with the exertion, but I can’t waste a second. I wriggle into the gap between the door and the frame and try to squeeze out. The door knob sticks into my stomach, and I can feel a loose nail on the door frame ripping into my back. I falter for a moment.
Then I see a shimmering patch of silvery light. It skips across the wall outside the bedroom only for a second, but it’s proof enough. The Vile is here.
I strain against the door one last time, and then I’m collapsing into the hall.
There’s a slash of pain across my lower back, and I’m trembling so much I can barely move. I drag myself to my feet and stagger up the hall towards the bedroom, not caring what monsters are in there. “Raff!” I scream hoarsely. “Raff, wake up!”
As I reach the door tiny pale figures hurl themselves at me out of the darkness. Fingers like cold vices dig into my arms, my legs, my throat. They’re strangling me, turning my scream into a voiceless gasp. They force me down onto the floor.
“Let me see her,” says a soft, chill voice.
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