All Maggie, Russell, and Henry wanted out of their last college vacation was to get drunk and play archaeologist in an old house in the woods outside of town. When they excavate the mansion’s outhouse they find way more than they bargained for: a sealed bottle filled with a red liquid, along with the bizarre skeleton of a horned child
Disturbing the skeleton throws each of their lives into a living hell. They feel followed wherever they go, their homes are ransacked by unknown intruders, and people they care about are brutally, horribly dismembered. The three friends awakened something, a creature that will stop at nothing to retrieve its child.
Three friends go looking for treasure and find horror in Jeffrey Ford’s The Twilight Pariah—available September 12th from Tor.com Publishing.
She picked me up at sunset in that ancient lime green Ford Galaxie she’d rebuilt and painted two summers earlier when she was into cars. It came around the corner like it’d busted out of an old movie. She sat there behind the wheel, leaning her elbow on the door frame. There was a lit cigarette between her lips. She wore a white men’s T-shirt and her hair was pinned up but not with any accuracy. Every time I’d seen her since we’d left high school her glasses were a different color. This pair had pink lenses and red circular frames.
“Get in, ya mope,” she said.
“What’s up, Maggie?”
As I slid into the front seat, she leaned over and kissed me. I gave her a hug. When I’d turned to her, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there were two twelve packs of beer on the backseat.
“Are we going to a party?”
“No. Guess who we’re going to see.”
“The Golem of Arbenville? Russel Flab Cock Babcock?”
She smiled, took a drag, and hit the horn. We were on the road out of town, and I wondered where this meeting was going to take place, but I didn’t ask, leaving myself open to the night. I’d seen neither her nor Russell since the winter holiday break. We’d been friends in high school, but each of us was now away from town most of the year attending separate colleges. I talked to Maggie on Skype maybe once a month, Russell, usually much less.
It was early in the summer following our junior year, and we were some distance along the path of going our separate ways. During a busy semester, dealing with classes and my current scene, I sometimes longed to be back in Humboldt Woods, lounging on the creek bridge, passing a joint in the heat of the afternoon.
“How’s school going?” I asked her.
“Changed my major.”
“That’s like the third time since you started.”
“I’m interested in something else now.”
I laughed. “That’s a vow-of-poverty major.”
“What, unlike English?”
“Let’s always be happy and broke.”
“I’ve got the broke part covered.”
“Are you writing a novel?”
“Basically, I’m dicking around.”
“You need a plan.”
“It’s not the way I work. That’s good for you. You’re an ace planner. I take my hat off to you. I’m more . . .”
“Fucked up?” she said, stepped on the brake, and turned off the road. The car slowed, and I looked out the window to see where we were. We’d driven out toward the state park on a winding road through the flowering trees. It was only then that I noticed the cumulative smell of spring, a cool evening, a light wind. It was supremely dark, although if I looked up through the branches above the dirt path we traveled, I could see stars.
“You’re taking me out in the woods?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna lock you in a cabin and put a gun to your head and make you write a book.”
“Of course not. No one gives a shit if you write a book or not.”
She patted my knee and the car came to a halt.
“Where the hell are we? I can’t see a thing.”
“The Prewitt mansion.” She pointed through the windshield.
A ball of orange light came from out of the darkness, and after a few moments of my eyes adjusting, I could see that it was someone carrying a lantern. An instant later the behemoth form of the house emerged out of shadow and into the dim glow. Whoever held the lantern lifted it above their head and swung it back and forth three times. Maggie flicked her plastic lighter three times in response.
“Grab the beer,” she said.
I did as I was told and she used her phone as a flashlight to illuminate our path. We followed the retreating lantern around behind the remains of the enormous wreck of a home. As little light as there was, I was still able to distinguish signs of the place’s demise: shattered windows, shards reflecting back the lantern’s glow, the leprosy of its three roofs, and a cupola that dimly appeared to have been bitten in half the long way by Godzilla.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“Rot and degradation,” she said.
We caught up with the lantern, which turned out to be held by Russell James Babcock, all-state linebacker from Arbenville High. He set the light down at his feet and came forward to catch me in a bear hug. “Greetings,” he said, and squeezed me till my ribs squealed. I dropped one of the twelve packs. Russell was a good-spirited monster, Pantagruel with a crew cut. Last I’d talked to him he’d told me he was in perfect football shape at 320 pounds. If I remember correctly, he’d just changed his major as well, from business to something even more boring, like economics.
Maggie pointed out some overturned plastic milk crates a little farther back in the yard and waved us toward them.
Russell put his arm on my shoulder and asked, “Did she tell you why she brought us out here?”
“Wait till you hear this shit.”
I took a seat, as did they, and handed each a beer. Took one from the box for myself and set it down. Maggie lifted a small glass jar next to her and held it while she turned her phone on and shone it at a pile of sticks and rotten logs that lay in the middle of the circle we sat in. She tossed the contents of the jar onto the pile and immediately I smelled gasoline. A moment later, she lit a match and tossed that after it. A whisper of an explosion followed, a whoosh, and then flames burst into life. Russell clapped.
We sat in silence and watched the fire. Finally, I said, “So how long are you guys home for?”
Russell was about to answer, but Maggie cut him off. “Let’s cut the chitchat till later,” she said. “This is what I’ve got in mind.”
“Nice transition,” I said.
“Check this out,” said the linebacker, and nodded toward her.
“Okay,” said Maggie, “ten feet behind you.” She pointed at me. “There are the untouched remains of an old outhouse pit. I was here this week with a soil core testing the ground. I know it’s down there; I read it in the dirt I brought up. And I know it’s lined in brick.”
“A soil core?” said Russ.
“We’re going to dig out this old privy and reveal its hidden treasures.”
“What do you mean by ‘We’re’?” I asked.
“The pit probably goes down a good ten or fifteen feet. I can’t dig all that out by myself.”
“You’re just assuming we’re gonna help you?”
“Tunneling through old shit isn’t exactly what I had in mind for this summer,” said Russ.
I raised my beer in agreement. “I’m digging enough contemporary shit. I don’t need any of the old stuff.”
“You’re both helping me whether you like it or not. Really, Henry, you’re sitting on your ass all day at the Humboldt House, guarding three dozen dusty paintings no one’s wanted to see for decades and making minimum wage. And you, blockhead, you’re over at the dairy farm shoveling shit in the mornings and working out for football in the afternoons. Not exactly what I’d call a tight schedule.”
“Are you saying that’s not work?” he asked.
“All I’m saying is that you two need to do something besides work for the summer. Something cultural.”
“Which means me and Russell should spend our spare time digging you a hole.”
“It’s probably my last summer to see you guys,” she said. “Next summer I’m going to Patagonia with this internship through school to participate in a dig near Quilmes. Who knows where I’ll go after graduation? I may never see you again. Or maybe when we’re really old I’ll pass you on the street one day and we won’t recognize each other.”
“Jesus,” said Russell. “Now that you put it that way . . . No.”
“My parents are away this summer. The pool is open. You can come over and go for a swim after working out every day if you want. Deal?”
“Deal,” he said. “But there have to be nights off. Luther’s coming down once every few weeks for a day or two.”
“Okay,” she said grudgingly. “I can’t really stand in the way of romance; I’d look envious. What about you, Bret Easton Ellis, are you in or out?”
“What do you hope to find down there?”
“We could find something really valuable. People have found all kinds of old bottles, watches, coins, dolls, false teeth, a wooden eye.”
“We split the worth of everything we find?” I asked.
“Sure. I just want to experience what it’s like and practice using some of the tools of the trade. Actual archaeologists would be pissed with amateurs doing this dig, but this place has sat abandoned for nearly a hundred years and no one’s taken the opportunity. I figure Arbenville is pretty much nowhere, and this place is hidden in the woods at the very edge of Arbenville. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a team of archaeologists to swoop in.”
“I’ve got nothing else to do but write a novel.”
“In other words,” said Maggie, “you’ve got nothing else to do.”
She and Russell laughed and I couldn’t be mad at them. That scenario Maggie mentioned about us passing each other on the street someday when we’re old and not recognizing one another stuck in my thoughts.
I lit up a joint and listened to her go on for a while about the wonders of unearthing the past. She was endearing but nutty, super smart and single-minded in her pursuit of whatever her current interest was, honest to a fault with everyone but herself. As for Russell, when he was playing football, he was a beast. At home, he kept a pair of powder blue parakeets, Charles and Susan, who flapped around him all day, perching upon his beefy head and shoulders as he sat on the couch watching his favorite show about hoarders.
There was another lull as the fire began to burn down, and I asked Maggie about the place. “You called it the Prewitt mansion?”
“That’s all I know about it,” she said. “I don’t even know how old it is. I looked at it during the day, and it looks like it must be from at least the late eighteen hundreds, maybe early nineteen hundreds. I’m gonna have to do some research on it as context for any items we find.”
“Seems a beautiful beat-up old place,” said Russell. “I think I vaguely remember my mother or grandmother telling me something about it when I was small.”
“I bet that house is full of stories,” said Maggie. “Henry, you should write about this dig.”
“Chapter one,” I said. “They shoveled old shit. Chapter two: they shoveled more old shit.”
“Do it,” she said.
For the next hour or so, well after the fire had died down, we traded stories from the old days. Russell talked about the four weeks in senior year that Maggie was obsessed with the singularity.
“Do you remember that?” he said to me. “I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.”
“Torrents of obscure bullshit,” I said.
“AI insurrection,” she corrected.
Russell and I burst out laughing and she gave us the finger. “You’re a couple of idiots. You’ll see someday.”
The breeze came up and I shivered awake. Through the dark, I saw the cherry glow of Maggie’s cigarette. I couldn’t recall where my thoughts had been, but time had passed; not a spark was left of the fire. I heard Russell whisper, “You gotta quit smoking, Maggs.”
“Fuck off,” she said. “I hope you two have shovels.”
Excerpted from The Twilight Pariah, copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Ford.