Previously: In a very haunted forest, Batya is assailed by a needy deer demon. Then she and her sister encounter some kind of sea hag who would love to tell them the terrifying history of those woods, but they ain’t got time for that.
— 09 —
At the foot of Hightail Lighthouse is a cozy shack where the keeper used to live. Good guy. Cleaned the lenses, trimmed the wicks, kept the forest spirits at bay. But then an ambitious and atrocious poet named Anji Tesoriero decided the lighthouse was the best spot to broadcast her dreadful verse to Fort Hook, so she forcibly evicted the old keeper via feral pig, then wired the place so it was essentially a giant antenna, clogging the airwaves with hour after amphetamine-fueled hour of:
…a riot, a collision, choking clouds of cinnamon and dirt, filthy vendors shouting out my name, brass trinkets, cords of gingham, teeth red with betel nut, an ancient devouring howl echoing through the angular rhythms of their speech…
Anyway after her heart exploded, local media conglomerate Eller Enormous Entertainment snapped up the property, and today it’s a radio station known as 105 The Hive. Shipping forecasts at daybreak, followed by your favorites from yesterday and tomorrow but not today. And in the graveyard slot is Fabulous Don Swezey, a warm voice in the cold black water of night, taking requests at your behest, spinning those songs that make you look off at nothing…and yet feel everything.
One of those songs is playing right now, an oldie called “Long Gone Dawn,” a real torch, its slow creeping beat vibrating the air as the Hull sisters spiral up the granite stairs two at a time and then collide with a heavy wooden door near the top. Sign says: ON AIR.
Bat pounds on the door with her good hand. “We got a request!”
There’s a crash—her guess is someone was leaning too far back in a chair and tipped over—then the door swings open and it’s Fabulous Don himself, looking like the tail end of an upsetting prom night. He’s wearing the ruins of a burgundy tuxedo: just a ruffled shirt and pants and untied tie, barefoot, cologne you can taste. And he is still, somehow, very debonair.
His eyes flit between the sisters as he frees one ear from his headphones, its coiled cable stretched taut into the room behind him. “Ladies,” he says, “this is a wonderful surprise but you are trespassing so bad I can hardly believe it. Please call in your request like a regular person, goodbye.”
Hearing Fabulous Don’s distinctively smooth voice, Bat finds herself transported back to those preteen nights when she’d obsessively listen to his show on a cruddy portable radio with one beige earphone. Soothing the heartbroken and horny souls out there in the darkness, playing songs she’d never heard, about feelings she’d never had, but nevertheless tugged at her soul.
“Mr. Swezey,” Mina says. “We—”
“Please, call me Fabulous Don, or the Midnight Delight.”
“The Midnight Delight, our request is a bit unusual. We had to come in person.”
“Very intriguing but everything goes through my producer Linda, all right? There’s a whole process that’s cumbersome in a way I like.”
“We just need a few—”
“And also,” Don says, pointing at ON AIR, “this is kind of a sacred time, so. Nighty night.”
Mina purses her lips, nods, slouches to make herself smaller. “I’m sorry,” she says, speaking more quietly so he has to lean in. “It’s just…things are so dire.”
Bat watches her sister shift into meek mode and follows suit, hanging back, bowing her head a little. As usual, Mina takes the lead, and Bat knows to shut up and loom in the background. And you know what? She’s mad at herself for immediately slipping back into the old routine, like no time has passed. Like nothing’s changed.
“We don’t actually need a song,” Mina says. “We need a voice. A voice that can reach out and find the answer we seek. And we knew there was only one man who had that voice. A voice we so desperately need. Tonight. Now.”
“Yes, I am that voice,” Don sighs, clearly burdened by his gift. He gives a quick listen to his headphones. “This song has two minutes thirty seconds left, then I’m back on the mic.”
“That’s all we need.” Mina takes out the Hawthorne job form, then moves alongside him so they can look at it together. “There is this mysterious symbol. It represents a place, somewhere here in town. Seen it before?”
He squints. “Can’t say I have. Don’t like it. Looks like the mark of an incubus, or maybe something to do with math.”
“We, too, are stymied,” Mina says, and Bat’s pretty confident she’s never heard her sister use that word before. “So we thought maybe we could describe it on the air and see if one of your loyal listeners recognizes it.”
Don backs away. “Whoa, whoa, there is a lot I don’t like about that. Firstly, I’m the only voice on this show, no guest hosts.”
“Of course, it’d be an honor to have you—”
“Second off, sorry for interrupting, but I am extremely particular about what I do and do not say on my show. Ol’ Don’s fallen for some hurtful pranks in the past. Not happening again.”
Mina gets up close, touches his forearm, somehow instantly makes her eyes misty. “Please, Fabulous Don, it’s for my sister. She’s not well. She doesn’t have much time. Look at her hand.”
Bat doesn’t know what the angle is but holds up her demon-gouged fingers and puts a pitiful expression on her face.
“And her eye.”
Bat pulls down her eyelid to show off her inkstained iris.
Don recoils. “Is that contagious?”
“No, no,” Mina says. “It is merely…horrific. And nauseating. No known cure. The doctors, they just shrug. And the physical manifestations aren’t the worst part. The number it’s done on her mentally, well, I mean, just look at her. Slack-jawed, vacant stare. She mostly talks in grunts. And, of course, there’s the smell.”
Mina turns and gives Bat a wink, looking very pleased with herself. Bat updates the list of things she’s going to yell at her about.
“And her last request,” Mina says, voice wavering, “is to finally know the truth of this symbol. This maddening symbol that haunts what’s left of her witless mind.”
“Gaaaa!” Bat screeches, and Mina bites her lip to keep from laughing.
Don doesn’t even flinch, he just looks at Bat with soft eyes. “Poor creature,” he says, then checks his watch. “Very well. Enter. Do not touch anything or say anything. But do appreciate the specialness of this moment.”
This has been Chapter 9 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: The Tingle Sweats