I’m not superstitious, but part of me blames that broken mirror.
The guys had made it a running joke for the last few days. Alice gets slammed into a funhouse mirror by a rampaging ghoul, we all make jokes about her seven years of bad luck, even though she managed to take said ghoul’s head off with a Bowie knife. By herself, thank you very much.
Clearing a ghoul nest, though, was just the start of my bad week.
"I’ve got it now," I whispered into my radio, peeking around the tree I was using as a cover. Big trees are rare in this part of Texas, and this was the only one in the empty lot. The other noticeable features were the billboard proclaiming FUTURE DEVELOPMENT, and the giant skeleton that didn’t even bother to hide behind it.
"I hate gashadokuro," George complained. "Vamps and ghouls and zombies are bad enough, but invisible skeletons? That’s just not fair."
"Life’s a bitch, then you die," Boss Cooper growled. George was a good man in a fight, but Boss Cooper had little tolerance for complaining. Halloween was our busiest time of the year, and we’d been working monster hunts for the last week straight. The Boss’ patience had worn out sometime between the zombie outbreak in Dallas and the vampire cloud outside a North Texas high school. "It’s not like we can see either of them, anyway."
"That’s why we have Alice," Paul said, inordinately cheerful. It was his coping mechanism. You don’t want to hear how he got recruited into this job, trust me.
"Saturday’s Child works hard for a living," Victor quoted. He was the scariest one of our group of White Swans–his weapon of choice was a meat cleaver. Apparently, he’d been some kind of chef before signing up to hunt monsters for a living.
As for me, I was the Sabbatarian.
People who are born on Saturday have the potential to supernatural creatures for what they really are. That’s part of Bulgarian folklore; somehow we’re the only culture to get it right.
Of course, you have to be born on a Saturday, and you have to eat the meat of a sheep killed by a wolf to actually get the ability to work. If you don’t, it’s limited to getting vague bad feelings about people or situations. Don’t ask me why; it’s just part of the rules. And since you’re wondering how I know this . . . short version, I have a crazy grandmother from the Old Country.
"Shut up, guys," I told them. "Skeleton’s headed towards me." I was between the gashadokuro and the sidewalk. I risked a glance over my shoulder, and saw another group of bright colors and giggles coming this way with their parental escorts. The kids had to walk past the empty lots in the neighborhood to get to the really good houses. "It’s got the kids in its sights now."
"Well, shit," the new guy, John, muttered into the radio. "Now what?"
"I’d say it’s time for the distraction, isn’t it?" I said. "Just get them to look the other way, and I’ll tag this thing."
"Copy that." John, the ex-Marine we’d picked up during the vampire cloud incident last week, hadn’t quite left behind all his military mannerisms. Boss Cooper had to slap him upside the head to keep John from calling him "sir" all the time.
I could hear the music coming on behind me, and sure enough, the kids and their parental units turned to look. In one of the empty lots across the street, there was a horde of costumed zombies Boss Cooper had hired from UNT’s performance art school. All they had to do was dress up, go where he told them, and do the complete Thriller dance whenever Boss Cooper gave the word.
You’d be surprised how many flash mobs are designed to distract the public from what we do. You know the one with the dancing monks in Italy? Some White Swans took out a whole vampire cloud while everyone was watching that.
Not wasting a perfectly good Michael Jackson distraction, I raised the readied crossbow and aimed at the giant skeleton. I had to hit the thing in the head, and I only had this one shot. I kept the tree between me and the kids, instead of me and the monster. I was wearing black military-like combat gear, hoping that if anyone saw me, they’d assume I was in costume. I’d fool the kids, but the last thing we needed was for a helicopter mom to see me with a compound crossbow and call the cops. That wasn’t fun the first two times.
The bolt had one of those nasty, four-bladed broadhead tips, along with a few other modifications. Shinto charms worked fairly well against gashadokuro, but I have to hand it to the Catholics; we have everybody schooled when it comes to monster hunting. That bolt had been soaked in holy water after the diocesan exorcist had prayed over it and scratched some Latin prayers into the shaft. He was a pal, and always had the best toys for us when we came into town; but they took time to prepare, and we’d been using them all week.
"Take the shot, Alice," Boss Cooper ordered.
I didn’t respond; I was too busy aiming for the giant skeleton’s temple, waiting for the perfect moment to release my Crossbow Bolt of Fiery Death and Sanctified Destruction into the creature before it ate any kids. I exhaled–
"Alice Nadejda Angelov!"
Startled, I pulled the trigger, and the bolt sailed towards the gashadokuro’s head. I watched it, praying–
And it hit the damn thing in the shoulder.
"What in the world are you doing here?"
I didn’t have to turn around to see who it was. Meanwhile, the gashadokuro was pissed, but injured, and was moving through the empty lots before it disappeared behind some houses. I was so furious I had to count to ten before I turned around. Otherwise, I’d have committed matricide.
"What do you mean, what am I doing here, Mom?" I turned to regard the short, rotund, and loud woman who stood in the middle of the sidewalk, glaring at me with her hands on her hips. "I live here! The more appropriate question is: what the hell are you doing here?"
She pointed at me. "Don’t you talk to me like that, young lady. As a matter of fact, I live here, too." She frowned. "And what have you been doing? You’re so skinny!"
My little world ground to a screeching halt. "I thought you lived in New York with Paula?" Screw vampires; I was more afraid of my mother living in the same zip code.
"Oh, Paula’s here, too."
I blinked a few times and finally managed to splutter: "Why?"
"Oh, your brother-in-law transferred to a hospital down here, and we all came. It’s a good thing, too. You should be getting married yourself–"
"All? You mean you, and Paula, and Paula’s husband, and her two hellions, AND Granny Galena . . . all live here now?"
"Don’t talk about the boys like that, Alice Nadejda. And of course we’re all here. Steve couldn’t exactly come down here for a new job and leave them in New York, now could he?"
Blue screen. Alice’s operating system has encountered a critical error and must shut down.
A white Ford Econoline skidded around a corner, violating the hell out of the posted twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit, and pulled to a screeching halt at the curb not two feet from my mother. I could see Boss Cooper in the front window, desperately waving for me to come on. They couldn’t track the gashadokuro without me.
I stepped backwards towards the van, keeping my mother in my line of sight at all times. Never turn your back on my mother. "I really have to be somewhere, so why don’t you–"
"Hey, epic crossbow!"
I took one more backward step and trampled both my nephews, who immediately began whining about how mean I was to step on their costumes–Iron Man and Captain America–and why was I always so mean to them?
I admit, the last time I babysat the hellions, none of us had enjoyed it. Paula had promptly promised never to ask me to babysit again. They might have been a little older now–ten and eight–but they still whined like it was an Olympic sport.
"Alice, what have you done now?"
"Oh, God, don’t do this to me . . ." I muttered.
Nope. My prayer went unanswered in this case. My older sister Paula was here, and so was my brother-in-law, Steven Arendonk–the much-lauded doctor who had the personality of a week-old onion. "Nothing intentional, Paula," I told her, still trying to get to the van and make my escape.
Paula was positively insufferable; it was obvious where the boys learned to whine. "Like that makes a difference. We haven’t seen you in years, and now, right off the bat, you’re already picking on the boys! I don’t understand; what did they ever do to you?"
I wanted to remind her that they’d once squeezed a whole tube of Colgate Optic White into my hair while I was sleeping, but didn’t get the chance.
I heard the sliding door of the van open, and George and Paul appeared next to me. "Um, I hate to break up this lovely family reunion," Paul said, charming as ever, but with eyes like daggers, "but we really need to get moving, Alice. Like, five minutes ago."
"Yeah, Mom," I agreed. "I have someplace to be."
"Now wait just a minute," Mom protested, her hands on her hips again. "Just who are these people?"
I have to admit, George and Paul probably looked like characters out of a bad horror movie–armed to the teeth and wearing grungy jeans and t-shirts–but I didn’t have time for this.
"Never mind who they are, Mom. We’re leaving. I’ll talk to you later, and–"
A fake-crying fit ensued when Nathaniel–unfortunately, also known as Natty–started pulling on Edmund’s–also known as Eddy’s–costume. Apparently, Iron Man wanted to take Captain America’s shield away. As usual, Steve said nothing and watched. I think I’d heard him say about fifteen words total since the day I met him. I saw an opportunity for an escape–
"Oh, no, you’re not just leaving with no explanation, young lady!" Mom said, grabbing my wrist. "You can’t be out in this neighborhood with a crossbow. What will you do if they call the police? And what do you need a crossbow for, anyway?"
Now Boss Cooper, John, and Victor were out of the van, too, ready to stage an intervention. They looked even more disheveled than George and Paul. Boss Cooper tried to politely explain to my mother that I was needed elsewhere, but she took one look at his lumberjack beard and refused to trust him. The ensuing argument was enough to draw the attention of about twenty other trick-or-treaters. I was ready to die of embarrassment on the spot, but I still had a giant evil skeleton to kill, so I refrained. Instead, I tried to just pull my teammates along and into the van, leaving my mother to continue her diatribe alone on the sidewalk. She’d done it before; why do you think I put twelve hundred miles between me and her?
It wasn’t working, and every second we wasted here, the harder the gashadokuro would be to find. At least the hellions had stopped whining, for the moment.
Finally, I’d had enough, and inhaled, fully intending to scream like a banshee until everyone else shut up.
I looked over Paula’s shoulder and saw Granny Galena–the only one of my relatives I really could tolerate–standing there in her usual skirt and blouse, with her usual hat on, the one with the preposterous little pompom that scared me when I was little.
"Yes, Baba?" I asked calmly. The others stepped away from me as Granny approached. She gently patted my arm, and nodded at the van. "You go now," she ordered in Bulgarian.
I wasn’t surprised that she knew what was going on. She was, after all, the one who had introduced me to the world of monsters. I smiled. "Yes, Baba."
She used her umbrella to shoo me and the others into the van. Not sure why Granny had an umbrella–this was Texas–but it was Granny, so I’m sure there was some reason.
We jumped in through the open sliding door before my mother could stop me. She still managed to yell, "You are coming over to eat with us!" as if she were a Jedi and could manipulate me with her mind tricks.
The van sped away before I had to respond.
"Alice, what the hell?!" Boss Cooper demanded, the others quiet and not willing to interfere. Boss Cooper in a temper was something to be avoided at all costs, but this time, I couldn’t blame him.
"I’m sorry, Boss," I said, rubbing my forehead. "I had no idea they were even in the same state, let alone that they would sneak up behind me while I was trying to kill that gashadokuro."
"What’s a gashadokuro?"
My head snapped around hard enough to rattle my eyes in their sockets. Sure enough, in the back of the van, among the crates full of dangerous things like C4, grenades, and enough ammunition to take Dallas, sat Iron Man and Captain America.
"What the hell?" George demanded, spinning around. The van wobbled as Boss Cooper had his second shock of the night.
"Nathaniel, Edmund, what in all hell are you doing here?" I demanded.
Natty pointed at me. "You cursed! I’m gonna tell Mom!"
"Screw that," I said, too angry to watch my language. "What are you doing here?"
Eddy was the more timid of the two, more of a whiner than a bully. "We just wanted to see what was in the van."
"Then you ask what’s in it, you don’t just climb into someone else’s van!" I turned back to my boss without waiting for them to answer. "We’ve got to take them back."
"No time," he said, his voice low and dangerous. "We’ve already wasted more than we can spare dealing with the rest of your family. We’ll drop them off when we’re finished."
I grumbled in Bulgarian for a few moments before I pulled out my phone and called my sister.
She answered on the first ring, hysterical, of course. "Don’t worry, Paula, they’re fine . . . they snuck into the van when no one was looking . . . of course we didn’t know! . . . no, we have someplace to be, and we’ll bring them back when we’re finished . . . oh, stop being such a drama queen, they’re fine. Just . . . no . . . Paula, don’t you even think of calling the cops! . . . No, we did NOT kidnap them!"
John was laughing and trying to hide it.
"Give me that," Boss Cooper reached awkwardly around the seat and snatched the phone from my hand. "Lady, I don’t know you, but I’ll promise you this: you call the cops, and we’re going to have a serious problem. The kids are fine, and we’ll bring them back when we’re finished with the important job you and your nutcase family interrupted." He hung up and threw the phone back at me.
I buried my face in my hands. "Oh, this can’t be happening." I turned to John. "My family is recurring proof that at least one angry Greek deity must have it in for me personally."
"It was the broken mirror," John teased. "I told you to be careful in that funhouse."
We drove in the general direction of the gashadokuro’s retreat, and found ourselves out of suburbia and into a more-or-less deserted state highway, with farmland and pasture on either side. I watched out the window, and tried to keep Natty and Eddy from prompting one of the well-armed, borderline-psychopaths in the van from wringing their neck.
Natty: "What’s a gashadokuro?"
Paul: "A giant invisible skeleton that rips your head off and sucks the blood from your body."
Eddy: "I wanna go home."
Victor: "Then you shouldn’t have gotten in the van."
Eddy: "I only did it ’cause Natty made me!"
Paul: "Just because Natty runs away to find Dad in Washington State, doesn’t mean you have to be the dog and follow her there."
Natty: "What’s this?"
George: "A friggin’ grenade, you stupid kid! Put it back NOW!"
Natty: "I don’t like you."
Victor: "They why did you get in the van?"
Eddy: "What’s that?"
George: "I already said it was a friggin’ grenade, and I told you not to touch it!"
"Not that," Eddy said calmly. "That."
Eddy pointed out the driver’s side window, and I followed his gesture.
There was the gashadokuro, in the middle of a pasture full of cows, toddling along like it was drunk.
I had been watching the passenger side, which is why I hadn’t seen it myself, but the idea that little hellion Edmund was Sabbatarian, like me, nearly gave me a heart attack. "That’s it, Boss," I told him. "Pull over. I’ll cross the street and nab it."
Boss Cooper did as I asked, and I rummaged through the back compartment, shoving Natty out of my way, looking for the last Crossbow Bolt of Fiery Death and Sanctified Destruction. Natty had been sitting on the case.
"You mean the kid saw it, too?" Victor asked.
"Looks like," I said.
"What?" Eddy said with a shrug. "It’s right there."
"There’s nothing there but cows, Eddy," Natty insisted after looking out the window.
"Yes there is."
"No there isn’t."
"Is too."
"Is not."
"Is too!"
"Is NOT!"
"Shut up, Natty," I ordered. "There is. I can see it, too."
Eddy looked up at me with something like abject adoration on his face. How many times had anyone in my family sided with him over Natty? Probably never. "Eddy, did Granny Galena make you eat some weird meat, and then say some words in Bulgarian recently?"
He nodded.
"Sweet," Victor said. "Can we recruit the kid, too?"
"I don’t care how bratty he is," Paul agreed, "if he can see these things, he’s worth his weight in gold."
"Later," Boss Cooper said. "We can’t let it get away again."
"All right, Eddy," I said, speaking very seriously. "I have a very important job for you. You sit right here, and watch that skeleton. If I don’t hit it this time, and it runs away, your job is to tell Boss Cooper exactly where it is, so that they can track it down. Got it?"
He nodded, putting on what was probably supposed to be a serious Captain America face, and saluted me. Natty looked like he was just going to pout while he was here, and then tattle on us to his mother as soon as we took him home.
I jumped out of the van and jogged across the street to the fence line.
The gashadokuro was busy scaring the cows, but being cows–undoubtedly the stupidest creatures God ever created–they ran away for a few yards, slowed down, and stopped. Then the monster would come at them again, and they’d run, stop, and repeat. The giant skeleton didn’t even seem to be very concerned with eating them. That holy water must have confused it, even if I didn’t manage to hit it in the head like I was supposed to.
I kept on this side of the fence, and waited for it to come closer, crossbow ready. I had only one special bolt left, and I couldn’t miss. I had to get closer. "Hey!" I shouted.
Of course, this would be the perfect time for a group of costumed–and probably high–teenagers to slide under the fence and head straight for the stupid cows.
Which one is stupider: the cow or the teenager? The world may never know.
Of course, the monster saw them as a perfectly stupid meal that it could eat without getting itself shot again. So, it went for the teenagers instead of me.
And they couldn’t see it.
I loaded a bolt and fired it. This one hadn’t been prepared like the other one, but it was enough to get its attention without drawing the gaze of the costumed idiots. They were laughing like those cows were the most hilarious things in the world.
The gashadokuro stared at me, torn between the free snack on one side, and me, the White Swan annoyance, on the other.
It picked me.
The gashadokuro lumbered towards me at a frighteningly rapid pace, and I reloaded the crossbow as quickly as I could. This time, I aimed the Crossbow Bolt of Fiery Death and Sanctified Destruction right at its stupid head, and fired.
Without my mother to harass me, my aim was good.
It staggered, and looked really stupid with the bolt sticking out of its forehead. It didn’t have any brain matter for the tip to embed into, so it just went through the front and then rattled around inside its skull with the red plastic fletching sticking out, like those stupid little umbrellas in fancy drinks.
I waited as the holy-water-coated bolt did its work. The gashadokuro began looking around for me, and its limbs–impossibly huge bones stolen from those who had died of starvation–were beginning to shake. Its gaze rested on the backs of the teenagers a few dozen yards away. It needed nourishment to survive and heal itself, but I wasn’t about to let it snatch a sixteen-year-old idiot and bite his head off in order to suck the blood from his body, no matter how annoying I thought they were.
I fired at it again, just to keep its attention on me. The gashadokuro staggered towards me, and I could tell that the holy water was working, disintegrating the thing from the inside.
The thing towered over me, muttering its "gachi-gachi, gachi-gachi" the way it did when it was hunting.
One huge skeletal hand reached for me, and I dodged, running around it like one of those cartoon mice chasing circles around the cat. A few turns later, it fell to the ground and broke into thousands of little shards. The spirit was gone, and all that was left were the original human bones. The teenagers had seen nothing, and apparently found something more entertaining than cows, because they walked away and out of sight.
"We’re good," I called to the others in the van. Now all we had to do was make sure nobody–especially not the local cops–noticed the pile of human bones that had just appeared out of nowhere in the middle of this pasture. And hope that the owner didn’t come out here with a shotgun, either.
I slung the crossbow across my back and waited for the others. They all approached–even Natty and Eddy–with black garbage bags and flashlights in hand.
"How come you get to have all the fun, Alice?" Paul demanded as he began to carefully gather up all the bones and fragments and put them into his garbage bag.
"Well, if you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it, Paul," I reminded him, taking a trash bag and helping out.
"Gimme a cloud any day," Victor said, gathering up monster pieces. "You tell us which people are actually vamps, we move in with stakes, case closed."
Boss Cooper supervised, using a few high-powered flashlights to illuminate the ground. We had to get all the bones, or some local farmer would end up with a murder investigation on his hands.
"What’s a cloud?" Eddy asked me as he gingerly picked up what appeared to be someone’s finger.
"The things in the sky, stupid," Natty said. Boss Cooper cuffed him, which made him whine.
"It’s the collective term for a group of vampires, Eddy," I told him.
"Oh." He picked up a few more bones, apparently satisfied that they weren’t squishy and gross. "Why are you called a White Swan? That’s what the Boss said you were."
And here we go with Twenty Questions. "White Swans are just people who fight monsters. Black Swans are people who help monsters."
"Uh . . ."
"Because ‘swans’ were what people called willing vampire victims. Then it became more specific," George clarified.
I had to admit, Eddy was much more tolerable by himself, when his brother wasn’t being an ass and making Eddy be just like him.
In about an hour, we’d cleaned up all the bones and fragments, and made one last check with the flashlights, just in case. Then we loaded up the kids and drove back to Paula’s house.
I moaned almost the whole time.
"Alice, cut it out," John teased. "It can’t be that bad."
"You don’t know my family," I said. "Did I say one angry Greek deity was out to get me? Never mind; it’s all of them."
The van pulled up in front of another suburban cookie-cutter house, and the front door flew open immediately. I opened the sliding door, and Natty jumped out and ran to his mom, who enveloped him in a hug, complete with tears and wailing and concern for his safety. I jumped out ahead of Eddy, who followed me, and then–wonder of wonders–grabbed my hand and walked calmly next to me and up to my sister.
"Alice, I can’t believe you!" she began. "How could you just drive off with the boys!? I don’t even know those . . . people. And you’re still walking around with a crossbow! They could have gotten hurt! And you just don’t care, do you?"
She went on like that for a good five minutes, and I just stood there, waiting for her to exhaust her vocabulary. Unfortunately, my mother arrived and added her criticism, too. I had trouble keeping my hands off the crossbow.
Finally, Eddy piped up when they paused to take a breath. "It’s not really Aunt Alice’s fault, Mom."
"Edmund, I don’t care. You can be quiet while I talk to your aunt."
The next moment passed very slowly. I saw what was happening, and wouldn’t have stopped it even if I’d had time.
Granny Galena’s ubiquitous umbrella came down on Paula’s head from behind.
She and my mother were stunned silent, for once in their lives. Not even Natty could come up with something whiny to say. I had a stupid grin on my face, and didn’t even try to conceal it. Just this once, Paula got what was coming to her.
Granny shoved her way past Mom and Paula, and stared at me and Eddy for a moment. "You finished the creature, yes?" she asked in Bulgarian. It’s not that she didn’t understand English; she just didn’t deign to speak in it.
"Yes, Baba," I told her. "Eddy helped us find it."
She nodded, and smiled at Eddy, before pulling me along behind her into the house. Eddy kept hold of my hand, and we formed a weird conga line: Granny with an umbrella, me with a crossbow, and Eddy as Captain America.
The stunned silence followed us all the way to the door, and finally Mom decided there were more important things to lecture about than me kidnapping Paula’s kids. "Now, you’re going to stay for dinner, Alice. It’s not right you being so thin. You’ll never manage to catch a husband looking like a twig."
"I don’t think additional food is going to help Alice catch a husband," Paula added with her usual condescension.
"Now, Paula, you hush and let me take care of it," she said, shoving all of us into the house. "Alice, if you would just mind your hair and clothes and such, and not dress like such a . . . I don’t know, a deer-hunting crazy girl, you’d have better luck." She shut the door behind us and kept nagging.
Dinner wasn’t ready yet, and Mom would rather talk than cook. I sat on the couch in the living room and tried to be pleasant, but it was hard. Eddy brought his bucket of candy over to me and sat down, offering me the Skittles.
"What do vampires look like?" he asked quietly.
I grinned. "To everyone else? Normal, unless they’re eating. To me? They’re more like giant bats with gray, leathery skin and red eyes."
"Oh. Like Mr. Matheson?"
I stopped with a grape Skittle halfway to my mouth. "Who’s Mr. Matheson?"
Eddy shrugged. "He lives next door."
"You mean you see people like that, and never said anything?"
"No one else was worried."
I chuckled. "Well, you’re a lot calmer than I was about my first vampire." I stood up. "Come on, let’s get him. I’ve got a whole van of White Swans outside with nothing better to do."
Eddy looked over his shoulder at the family arguing coming from the kitchen. He frowned, then grabbed my hand. "Yeah. Let’s go."
I heard my mother’s voice calling my name, and walked faster out the front door, slamming it behind me.
Eddy listened to the motherly demands through the door. "You’re a grown-up. She’s not the boss of you!"
I shook my head, but smiled. "She doesn’t agree with that, kid."
We would get along; we both knew that monsters were bad, but family was hell.
But you could shoot monsters; family you just had to endure.
More in Adventure…
by David Churchill Barrow
Was God testing him? Was he doing His will, or failing the test?

Declan Finn
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by Michael Sheldon
"R is for redneck."–Ray Wylie Hubbard