Ten days after they had climbed out of that well, Bea had come to the determination that cults to dark gods are complete and utter bullshit.
They kill folks and nobody does anything about it, but the moment something happens to them the police roll out and commandeer the Clik Clak Diner as the base of operations for their search parties. Yet another indication that justice in this world is a sick, sad joke.
She had no idea how many cultists were down there. Even Gregg wasn’t sure and he had the best night vision of them all. However many, the disappearance of so many townsfolk couldn’t help but draw attention. After the night the mine collapsed she had kept an eye out, making notice of any conspicuous absences. Angus did the same and at the end of the day they compared notes online. Somebody had to do it and Mae and Gregg could hardly be counted on to keep track of their own extremities let alone other people. One time Bea had been walking down the street when Mae dropped in front of her from the top of a three-story building. She picked herself up completely unharmed and asked Bea how fast rats reproduced. Too damn fast, she had said. Not that she was complaining about the spike in rat poison sales. Something about that had struck Mae as funny and she jumped away laughing. No. Mae was not going to track down the identities of all the assholes who belonged to that weird murdercult.
The first day that Bea reopened the Ol’ Pickaxe after they had climbed out of that well, Creek did not show up for work. Ditto the day after and when Bea called his home his wife picked up and told her with a wavering voice that he hadn’t been home. Not since the night they had climbed out of that well.
Bea wasn’t sure what to think of that. It could be wild coincidence and he was just on some mad drunken bender. Or it could be he was one of those assholes now stuck underground with their blind cosmic god. Pro: she didn’t have to deal with the old pervert anymore. She didn’t have to worry about being alone in the store with him. Or the way he tried to curry special favors from her or harass her. Con: she was now out one of the few skilled repairmen on her payroll and his family was now out a father. She didn’t know what his home life was like but that was heavy shit to think about.
Also, she disliked the tidiness in which a creepy old man was just… swallowed up by the earth like that. If Creek was truly down there in the mine it spoke to a kind of dark retribution that she entertained only in her head and was direct evidence that if there was any justice out there, it was justice at the hands — tendrils? Pincers? Segmented limbs? — of an ancient horror god and if that’s not the basis for an extreme theological crisis Bea didn’t know what was.
So she watched her customers come and go. She asked innocuous questions and listened to the answers. She walked the streets when she could and noted signs of absence: mail piled up in mailboxes, routines that had been broken. Anything to suggest that a person-shaped hole had been punched into the tapestry of Possum Springs, revealing the yawning void below. And at night she’d share her observations with Angus and they’d built a list.
When the police came to investigate the sudden glut of missing persons an edge of anxiety told her that they would be very interested were they to ever discover her list. She had expressed that worry to her friends one night during band practice even knowing that it’d be waved away as paranoia. Bea didn’t mind being called paranoid. At least she was thinking about it. She found herself watching the police a lot and when she did, the others would sometimes join her.
They had all taken to leaning against the wall of Snack Falcon and watching the police go in and out of the Clik Clak.
“Dude, most of these cops aren’t even Possum Springs cops,” Gregg said.
“That’s because the police here pretty much consists of Mae’s aunt and that one guy,” Bea said. “Not enough to deal with this ‘crisis’ they got going here.”
“I hate these new cops,” said Mae.
“You hate all cops,” said Angus.
“But Possum Springs cops are my cops! They belong to me! These jerks are stepping all. Up. In. My grill. I won’t have it.”
“No dude, they’re in the Clik Clak’s grill,” said Gregg.
“That is my grill!”
“Chill, guys,” Bea said, dropping her cigarette and grinding it under her heel. “I don’t want any of their attention anywhere near us.”
“Then why are we here?” said Mae.
“Just watching,” Bea said after a pause. It wasn’t the best use of her time. She should be back at the Pickaxe using her lunch break to deal with inventory or something. She was trying complete irresponsibility. Giving it a test run. It seemed to work so well for everyone else she knew. So here she was watching cops form teams that plunged into the woods.
Angus came up behind Gregg and wrapped his arm around him. “I’m going back to the store, bug. Probably shouldn’t have left it like that.”
“Fine.” Gregg’s reply was curt enough that it drew everyone’s attention and he noticed their eyes shift towards him. “What?”
“What’s up, dude?” Mae said.
Gregg stiffened. His eyes flicked towards the diner and its cops. “… Nobody ever searched for Casey.”
Angus drew him into a tighter hug. Mae’s ear twitched.
“Hell, Gregg, it wasn’t your fault,” Bea said. She wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to say. She probably shouldn’t have said anything at all. There were a number of meanings attached to her statement, not least of which was that no one was ever going to find Casey anyway. Not with where he ended up.
“I know. I just don’t like the idea of anyone giving a shit about the people who killed him. To hell with it, man. I’m going back to work.”
Gregg slipped out of Angus’ embrace. Angus followed him after giving Mae and Bea a quick farewell that they returned.
Bea was about to excuse herself as well when Mae spoke up.
“We should probably get rid of these cops.”
Looking down at her warily, Bea felt the urge to light another cigarette. “Why?”
“They make Gregg upset and that pisses me off. How do you get rid of cops?”
“I don’t think cops really leave a place until they decide to.”
“What if we got them in trouble? Oh! What if, like, they beat me up?”
“What?” Bea said.
“Like they went to town on me with night sticks and tasers and it causes a scandal?” Mae’s eyes widened in a way that made Bea frown. “That would totally work. You record it on your phone and I’ll start some shit that will get them to go all police brutality on me then we post it online. You’d have to cut out the part where I start shit though.”
“Do you think a video of me getting beat up by cops would go viral? I bet it would go viral. I’m cute as hell. Or I used to be. Still. I’d be a viral sensation.”
“I don’t have a phone with a camera, Mae.”
Mae’s shoulders slumped. “Oh right. Same. Well. Never mind.”
“Yeah, think we should smother that plan in its sleep.”
“Heh. Getting beat up sucks anyway. I think if I had a say in how I get beat up, I’d want it to be rad you know? Not in some diner parking lot.”
“What’s a rad beatdown look like?”
“Fighting a dude on top of a train. That’s heading towards a cliff. And the bridge is out.”
“I suppose that would do it,” said Bea.
“Or!” Mae’s eyes widened even more. “If I were falling from 10,000 feet in the air. From an exploding airplane. And I was fighting a guy mid-air for the last parachute. That would be incredible.”
“Not confident I’d win that fight.” Mae scratched her chin speculatively and her ear flicked. “I’d give it my best, obviously, but that’s a pretty dire situation. I’d think the other guy would respect me, you know? Like if you’re fighting over the last parachute, all bets are off. You gotta fight with everything you got, so even if I lose I think the other guy would have respectful thoughts about me. Like, ‘yeah, she died but she gave it her all and I gotta respect that’ I’d want that guy to give a eulogy at my funeral.”
“Your closed-casket funeral.”
Mae continued scratching her chin. “Cops leave one crime if there’s a bigger crime somewhere else.”
Mae turned to look at Bea.
“No,” said Bea with finality.
Mae rolled her eyes. “Fiiiine. I should probably get back to work I guess.”
A smile almost nearly formed on Bea’s mouth at that. Mae’s recent employment as deliverer of tacos could only be a step in the right direction. It wasn’t glamorous. It didn’t even make sense because Mae didn’t have a car to make deliveries in, but it didn’t seem to matter. I can run from one end of town to the other about as fast as a car can drive down our pothole hellstreets, whadda I need cars for? Mae had said. Sometimes Bea saw her, climbing on window sills and telephone poles and skipping on power lines with paper bags filled with tacos like some kind of crazed taco-bearing Santa Claus. Mae wanted to wear a superhero costume and call herself a deliverer of taco justice but her boss had shelved the idea.
Complaining aside the job seemed… tentatively good for her. It helped her burn off some of that manic energy that she positively vibrated with. That, along with the occasional time she volunteered to help offload shipment for Bea’s hardware store. A sentimental part of Bea egged her on to find a place for Mae at the Pickaxe but the part of her that was unflinchingly realistic — that is to say, 90% of her — knew that if she did that the results would only be disastrous and lay waste to whatever weird friendship they had going on.
Still, Mae was improving. And at some point she apparently had a pretty intense talk with her parents about what went down at college that caused her to drop out. She had already shared that with Bea, the night that they’d climbed out of that well. But at least her parents were in a position to provide some kind of help.
“Or I could start a forest fire.”
“Again, Mae: no.”
“Okaaaay. Can’t pay for therapy without a dang job. Man, it sounds so weird when things like that come out of my own mouth.”
Bea cocked her head. “You’re seeing a therapist. And paying for it.”
“Yeah duh, dude.” Mae kicked a soda can. It clattered across to the rear of the Snack Falcon, skittering over broken glass. “I mean, I’m going to. Soon as I find someone to tell my broken brain problems at. Not like my parents can afford to.”
“Can’t you get on their insurance?”
“I mean, for a prescription yeah, I think Mom’s will cover it. Therapy’s on me.”
“That’s… really cool, Mae. I’m glad you’re doing this.”
Mae gave her a small smile. Bea had divided her life into befores and afters. There was the life she had before her mom died and the pale shadow of a life she had after. Now Bea found herself at another dividing point. Before she had to climb out of that well filled with insane old people who clung to promises made by a cosmic god thing. Then there was after she had climbed out of that well. And after felt like it could conceivably be better. It really better be. That was the other bullshit thing about dark god cults. You bury one at the bottom of a mine shaft and there’s no reward for that. Bea felt like there should be. Preferably cash that can pay off a bill or two. Settle her mom’s medical debts. Something to give her some relief from the shitstorm life had dropped on her. Mae working to get herself better might not directly help as far as keeping a roof over Bea’s head, but it was something worth being happy about all the same.
“Seriously Mae, that’s good to hear.”
“Yeah, yeah. I just… don’t wanna feel like the way I did… before. You know.” Mae scratched the back of her head and looked to the side.
“I can help you find someone,” said Bea. “Someone who isn’t Dr. Dumbass Hank.”
“Heh. Okay. That’d be cool.” Mae shifted to leave and Bea wasn’t for behind. But then Mae stopped. “Also… like… I know you don’t want me, uh, getting involved with your… you know, all the crap you got… uh, going on. With your life.”
Bea gave her a long, measured look as Mae stumbled through her sentence.
“Dammit. I just mean… you know, you can talk to me and… uh…”
“I get it, Mae,” Bea said.
“I mean I know I can screw things up real royally but I don’t want you to think I don’t… uh… care? Or stuff like that. Cuz I do!”
There was something endearing about watching Mae try to tiptoe when she typically bulldozed. Bea wondered how long it could go.
“Because I’m… y’know… trying to work on all my shits here,” Mae said. “But I want to help you with your shits too… because… shit I’m screwing up again.”
Deciding she had endured enough, Bea crossed her arms. “It’s okay, Mae. I get what you’re saying. And probably not for a while, but… maybe. Okay? I will take your offer under consideration.”
“Okay.” Mae shifted on her feet. “I just don’t want you thinking this is like, a you or me kind of deal. I’d like it to be a you AND me thing, right? Not like… like…”
“Like we’re fighting for the last parachute?” Bea said.
Mae looked at her. “Dude, if we were ever in that situation I’d just give you the parachute.”
Bea gave her a sidelong look and smiled. “Regardless, that isn’t what’s happening.”
“That’sn’t,” said Mae. “Also you’d still have to give me a badass eulogy.”
“Go back to work, Mae. I don’t want you getting fired.”
“Yeah. You want a taco lunch, dude? I’ll deliver.”
“I don’t want you stealing, Mae.”
“If I gave you free stuff I think you’d be the one stealing technically. But you can use my employee discount!”
“Great! I’ll get you some stuff. See you at the Pickaxe in like half an hour.”
With another quick smile, Mae dashed away with a hop, skip, jump. She was always jumping. The only time Bea hadn’t seen her jumping was when she was leading them down that goddamn mineshaft. Bea was glad to see that hurt and thoroughly lost version of Mae good and gone. Left in the bottom of the mine with a bunch of other ghosts.
And soon Gregg and Angus would be gone and it would just be the two of them. Change happens no matter what.
She dusted a few errant snowflakes off her shoulder. It was about time to return to the shop. Bea gave the diner one last look then moved around the snow banks that had been piled around the streets. The snow had come the morning after they had climbed out of that well and fell so heavily and blotted out the sky so thoroughly that Bea could almost believe that there was some truth to what the cultists said, that they had angered whatever was down at the bottom of that hole and now it was unleashing disasters that would swallow up Possum Springs. But then the snow stopped. And the snowplows did their work. And the next day people came into the Pickaxe and gave her a tidy profit raiding her shovel and salt supplies. Life went on.
Bea walked. Below, a cosmic blind god lurked. In the woods, cops crept. And up above, a taco Santa Claus moved over power lines. And perhaps between them all there was some kind of justice.