“Everything was ready for the ritual.”
The Dying Grass Moon burned red as it set itself upon the land. As the seeds and the green broke through the dire earth, The valley was kind to its tenants. But it asked for a tithe in kind.
The canal passageways once nourished the roots, the hoofed beasts and the tiller . The ripples shifted from black to red alongside the night fires. Smoke and ash danced across the twilight. old almond groves had to be purged and returned to the soil. The charred haze from brush fires in Sonora and Napa sank in the county like a beast trapped in a well.
The valley was a bowl trapped between the Sierras and the hills overlooking the Bay. The captains of capital were killing the earth and she was responding in kind.
The skulls would soon come to life and recite the names such as their fathers before them. They were all testaments for the stalks and the stem.
Central Valley, California. Interstate South-99
The hazel cloud of brushfire smoke and insects pummeled the white truck. Summer ended a month ago for most places, but the heat had barely relented. The driver spent the last twenty minutes telling a mother her assault kit was missing, there were threats of lawsuits and interviews with the associated press. She was one of three cases sitting on an endless pile of mature subject matter. That was another candle the Deputy would be lighting at mass. The inscriptions on the bronze coin soothed the creeping urges. Deputy Lopez was glad to make the transition to Rural Crimes Units. She wasn’t able to deal with people anymore.
Mya made it sixty days without a visit to the bottom of an orange bottle of expired pills.. Coffee and her doodle pad kept her focus when the devil on her shoulder started to whisper. It took a force of will to break generational bondage.
Hispanic women shut down their fruit stands off makeshift stands off for the evening. the cracked corners in the service station had seen better days. Teens threw mock grenades at locomotives and mammoth machines. The flood lights bleed on the groves of trees as underpaid laborers started their second shifts. Many of them braved harsh terrain to receive crumbs from the American dream.
Feral dogs cost farmers a kings ransom to put up harder barriers and after hours vet bills to stop the bleeding of their prized animals.
They culled the young and unattached. Fighting cost calories so the beasts targeted the ones that could not put up a fight back to their dens. The farmers could feel the howls and the cries for the calves as the mutts dragged what they could into the thicket. Mya couldn’t think of a better metaphor for the valley. People were all trapped here.
The paw prints were sloppy, these creatures were losing their fear of man. The mongrels had their bellies full but not their blood-lust, they began to seek prey as a pastime.
The hounds howls acted like a calling card. Mya took note of the time and pause between the barks.
She had spent a lot of her angsty youth in these parts. Smoking under the old bridge and breaking into old man Manson's water towers. The folklore they shared was expansive and always changed with the next generation. She had heard of the farms that participated in the unfamiliar.
Her favorite was detailed the rituals of refugees. Dust bowl farmers escaped the grasp of the banks and the droughts in the bible belt. The Golden State whispered promises of milk and honey in exchange for sweat and blood.
Desperate workers drove down the low pay. As the adults toiled under the sun and the soil, the children were left to their own devices. Fathers and mothers would come home and find not every member of their household accounted for.
The flatland was far from the large predators of the Yosemite valley, but what else could have taken the children in the thicket. Mothers mourned and fathers kept red shells in the barrels of their guns at night.
Resent sprang up from where little white crosses were placed in the ground. The preacher failed to provide solace and the good book couldn’t provide answers.
The field workers regressed back to the older paths. Their ancestors didn’t always worship at the cross, they made pacts in reverence. They made pleas lords of the flora and fauna. The long dead choirs of long dead ways were reborn from the sorrows of shallow graves. These congregations melted beneath the Pentecostal structures. The words that echoed through the green and the void were alien and yet so visceral.
Mya spent summer nights with friends sneaking out to play with ghost games in the groves. Her friends placed trinkets and treats in the thickets. One never knew when a ghoul felt slighted. The rules were simple enough. Always wait for midnight, and never play past the witching hour. Each girl brought a crown for a wish. They waited for the candles to die before the whispers in the grass approached.
Anyone who stayed outside the protective circle the longest, could make a wish. They kept their crown as a rite of passage. Mya still kept her the halo bound by sticks under her bed, just in case.
The dry winds pushed the sticky sweet odor into Mya's direction. As if the land where calling out to her. The scent matched so many late night calls inside foreclosed homes and makeshift trailer parks. Death. People tried to outrun it, the lucky ones met it in the comfort surrounded by loved ones, the well off could delay it at a price. It would come for every one in those fields, some sooner than others.
The mound of dirt and grass. propped open an entry way into blackness. Scarlet stains seeped into the sapphire grass. She followed the tracks into the small entryway. The hallowed ground pierced veils between worlds, where the barriers held no more resistance than the morning mist.
Mya steadied her flashlight against the pitch and descended down the steps. Secluded areas in the valley were hotspots for hook ups and the homeless. Addicts typically left needles and boxes of anti-overdose meds for the county to clean up. She had found too many bodies face down in a pile of their own waste during her years on patrol. Its partially the reason she requested to work in the Rural Crimes Unit. She found nothing of the sort as she crossed the styx.
The wet-rag smell overtook the fresh air from the surface. The black void smothered the edges of her vision as it pushed back the yellow beams from her torch. Small pods were dug into the earth, each one draped in sackcloth. The prohibition was a boon for grape farmers and bootleggers in the valley. Mya had stumbled upon closely guarded secrets, secrets the dead could no longer keep. There was a door within the tunnels. A small room awaited Mya as she kept an ear out for the dogs. An old chest sat inside the region. Mya unlocked it and found a treasure of the bizarre.
A skull with names of people lost to time and apathy were painted on the marrow. Several tapes and film reels had seen better days as well. The flashlight caught a warped journal bound in black.
July, 18th. 1958. “They can’t shut off our water. I just need a few more days! Granddaddy brought us from the edge of ruin from the dust bowl. It started with small creatures, I didn’t let them suffer. They were buried next to the tree by the chapel where mothers placed the stillborn as tribute.
Mya soaked in the expressive savagery. She began to understand why the veils between worlds were so thin here. People placed stock in his barren flat.
“little by little the rains came back. You offer prayers with the creator. but when he doesn't answer you have to sometimes, find other venues. Logan caught me and got in the way. Oh my God it don’t wash off. Johnny Law keeps asking questions. Please accept this greater kill instead. Ill have to bury this one deeper.
The door above the stairs. slammed shut. The radio produced only a white noise as she demanded officer assistance, if none arrived it would turn into officer down.
The white noise bounced off the walls, Mya clicked on it to ask for steel traps and red bait.
The dagger in the dark was felt and never seen. The invisible hand yanked Mya off her feet and checked her against an empty tomb.
The flashlight spirals out of reach. She wouldn’t feel the pain at first, there was a moment of rage that compelled her to act. The ghoul latched on to her rifle and fired the dart into Myas leg. its dome. Mya slammed her boot into the disciples shin. The suspect fumbled with the bolt in during the maelstrom.
Mya upped the ante and snatched her service weapon. Two hot casings dropped to the ground, a haze of white fire and dull ash flooded her five senses.
There was a mountain of paperwork every time an officer drew on a suspect. There was a law-suit behind every bullet. But Mya wasn’t concerned with the post-incident committees at the moment. The ghoul slammed a boot against her scalp. Warm nickel oozed from her scalp, the echos of a leaky faucet.
“Yes lets nourish the soil.” He smiled and gloated. “Your blood or mine, it delights the chapel all the same.” The boogeyman had the perfect crown and necklace set out for Deputy Lopez. Nobody could leave the valley, every day corporations pressured farms to suck water out of the wells until the holes were caked with mud.
The oasis sank back into the ground inch by inch. There's a reason drifters left small codes to stay away from chapel black and the underground tunnels. The killer believed in the stories. This place granted wishes for a heavy price.
The drought could not be broken and desperate people returned to the old ways. Mya limped along the catacombs. She only had to be brave for a few more minutes until her friends arrived. She repeated Sunday school hymns to stay awake. The flashlight flickered against the endless maze. Who built this place and kept it hidden for so long? This was an Anthropologist’s wet dream. Mya pieced together what was in the sack clothes dug in the sides of the tunnels. People.
The folk tales weren't tales at all, they are invitations.
The sanctuary fed on the plight of the poor and the desperate. She wanted to hate it, but how was it any different from the warehouses and chicken factories across the county that siphoned long hours for low pay. Was her role any better? She busted up homeless camps and spied on union organizers on the job. She began to have a distaste for addicts squatting in overpriced shacks. It's ironic she started to become one.
God, what Mya wouldn’t give for a little pick me up. Maybe there was still some bath tub gin locked away down here.
She followed the scents and ignored the Halloween décor and focused on the smell of the earth. She feared this place would collapse and become her tomb. It wouldn’t kill her right away, it would take a while before the air ran out.
She approached the ladder. The drugs from the dart were rapidly hitting the right spot. She’d have to tell her sponsor at the next meeting, they’d probably take away her chip. The large room presented itself to the Deputy. This was unlike the ruins from before. The bricks stacked on top of each other with reverence, the stones were made to stand against the fauna. Mya stood face to face with the altar of atonement.
The Corn stalks intermarried with the stone-fruit branches. A marigold melon with a jagged smiles and withered green stem dared the woman to blink. The sticks of lights flickered as the wax bled into the pumpkin.
“Now you understand the reverence.” The acolyte placed their hands on the bullet stains. “All those bodies made the same sacrifices, they earned their crowns.”
The deputy and the devoted walked in circles around the altar. They were bound by blood and the shrine would demand more. Mya waited for her target to get less blurry as she placed the rear sights at the spot she planned to destroy if they forced her hand.
She had heard of suicide by cop, but this transcended a patient held in a padded cell. They walked the streets everyday with untreated ailments. “Keep your hands there.” She stammered as the meds were finally taking hold.
“The response time for an officer that hasn’t checked in should have brought a supervisor.”
The words spun a web of mistrust.
“You're starting to see how far these customs go back. They are entrenched."
The stag-man reached for a tool as he rushed Mya.
There are two kinds of shooters: those who will admit to having had trouble with their technique, and liars.
Some people occasionally develop a flinch or a tell. Sometimes getting a airtight grip is the problem.
Everyone needs to practice their draw more often, a lot of rookies were infamous for jerking or slapping the trigger. Mya wasn’t a rookie, and she didn’t jerk the trigger. The first round caught the boogeyman in the stomach. The maroon cavity found a nice entry inside their lungs. The follow up shot split the blue vein under the jaw line. The maroon mist stained the marrow mask.
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. The suspect kept their hands open and in plain view of Mya's front sights. The fear increased the fog in her eyes but she wouldn’t need twenty/twenty vision to make the shot. The killer sat down in the altar of stalk and stones. The blood seeped past the floorboards and into the soil.
Deputy Lopez found the weapon in the suspects hand wasn’t a weapon at all, it was a crown.
Memories were unreliable even in the best of times, but the crown matched the one she made as a teen looking for ghosts and ghouls.
The stabbing no longer was a concern, the drugs had done their job. Mya walked over to the and broke off of the commandments of the crime scene. She picked up the crown and placed it on the students head. The King was dead, long live the king. Mya removed the sobriety chip and dropped it under the floorboard. A token of a good gesture, some traditions were kept for a reason.
She heard the dogs howling at the blood moon. They would prowled the fields undeterred but made sure to stay clear of the Black Chapel. The night belonged to the hunter and the haunted.