Jonah sat on his porch looking out to the desert. It was beautiful, no matter what anyone else said. The way the sand burned under the sun, the blur and melt of the horizon; it was as precious to him as Julianna, the way it gave him peace most days. Somewhere close-by, he heard the deputy walking over at a pace, hell, almost running, to tell him what he already knew. He drew a long breath, smudged the cigarette out of life under his heel and waited.
“It’s happened again, boss,” the deputy said. He was a young man, a kid almost, and he told Jonah the news of the sixth victim hurriedly, like he was reading at a school hall. He nodded, picking out the details and not the rumour, identifying what he needed and batting away what the rest of them all heard. When he was done, he looked up, saw the boy was pale enough to just about faint away. On his shirt cuff was a fine speckle of blood, where he must have tried to save her.
“Tonight. I’ll find him tonight,” Jonah said finally, pulling himself out of the chair. He looked out of the window, saw all the garlands and celebrations laid out for the evening. “The killing stops with the New Year, I figure.”
“But how are you going to find him, boss?” The deputy said, following the man’s gaze out to the street. People busied themselves with the celebration, but at a crawl, six deaths weighing down any movement folks had about the future.
“I’ll find him. You and Billy tend to the party business, I’ll head on down to the ravine tonight and try and end it.” He turned and looked to the boy; his eyes peeled wide and he swallowed.
“You think he’s down the creek?” He whispered. “Is that what you found?” He went on, waving his arm gently to the maps and tolls laid out on Jonah’s desk. ‘The helpless sheriff’s box of tricks’ the newsman said, from the other end of the town. But never to his face.
“You see the celebration runs smooth, Ricky. I’ll be back before the bell chimes, you understand?” He held the boy on the shoulder and felt it tense. The boy wanted to go with him; he knew that, felt the courage rise in him, overwhelming the fear; he was a good kid. But Jonah held his eye all the same and made him understand that this was the way it was going to happen. There wasn’t any choice in the matter, not when it came down to it.
Jonah prepared everything down in the cellar of his place, while Julianna was still at the school with the girls and boys. He carefully loaded up the bag, most of him wanting to walk straight over and hold her by the hand, tell her what was taking shape now, but the small part of him, the part that knew what had to be done, kept his hands moving, his eyes sharp and focused. It was a curse, this part of him and he knew it, but he knew how things would take hold and crumble if he ignored that part of himself. He carefully folded the last few things in the sack and hoisted it onto his back. It was light but prickly, like carrying a little boy on your back that carried slingshots and marbles in his pockets. Last of all, he slipped the book into his chest pocket, the thing nestling against his heart, giving him a light sensation of burning. It was time.
Jonah slipped from his house and onto the back roads, edging against the tide of folk who were making their way to the town square for the New Year’s Eve party. By the time he reached the top of the hill, it was twilight. He looked down to the town and followed the people, busying like ants with their chores. He saw Julianna, standing by a stall, her hands being held by one of the old town ladies. There was an ache in him for a moment, a long perfect grip of love around his heart, before the book burned deeper, overwhelming the feeling and making him step on. He turned and headed into the woods, the image of the long white dress holding in his mind for a moment, before being swallowed up by the dark.
Jonah pitched up by the dirty ravine and set out a stove. He made up coffee, laid the tools down on the dry ground. There was a rustle close by and he knew the thing was beginning to come closer. Jonah looked out to the water, seeing how the ravine was almost pretty, the water almost soothing in the way it rippled. But then he took a step closer, peered into the pool and saw the traces of the dead folk, each face screaming, and each eye full of fear and crying and knew this place was never going to be anything than an ugly, crooked thing.
The sound of the celebrations began to peal through the creek, almost masking the sound of the thing edging closer to him, but not quite. If there was one thing he understood, it was that evil grew larger and moved louder than goodness. For a second he closed his eyes, let the cool sound of two children singing in the square, up on the hastily erected stage, wash over him; the sound of it, the innocence, poured through him, swelling him, until he felt something like ten feet tall. Then, in the next moment, there was a rush of wind, the sound of pure evil lunging through the air, and then it set upon him, it’s jagged circle of teeth in his neck, the pulse and snap forcing itself down on his skin.
Jonah felt his body rolled into the air, his face facing upwards to the sky; it was a beautiful sight, the stars scattered every place and the moon commanding the centre of the world. There was a moment when he let himself go light, felt the weightlessness gather him up and he enjoyed it, yes he did, the lightness of his body, the freedom of simply being carried, being free of all his responsibilities. But then there was the sight of the monsters grey fingertips, the long, lavish nails and the small, cool part of him, returned and he began to act.
Jonah allowed himself to fall to the ground; the gash from his neck was already beginning to seal itself. He drew up to his feet, steadying himself against the rocks. Everything returned to him, the weightlessness slipping away. Jonah looked over to the thing, saw how it had begun to rock on its heels; the tough bloated timber of its body wavering slightly, as it drew a set of perfect nails up to its own throat.
“What…what is this?” It gurgled. The voice was squalid and neutral, the flat nothing of a body that is neither man nor woman. “Your stuff…stuff…is like mine? Like me?”
The last two words were a weak roar, full of indignation and also horror. Jonah almost let a small grin roll onto his lips; to repulse a monster, he thought, shaking his head. He put his hand to his throat; the wound was almost gone now, a nothing graze a kid would catch from walking through hedges. The thing dropped to his knees, a gentle puff of dust kicking up as he fell. The body was evaporating with the poison, becoming nothing more than a bloated shell.
Jonah reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the book. There was a skim of true horror on the creature’s eyes when he saw it. Jonah walked towards him, seeing the pitiful shuffle of the thing’s legs as it tried to back away. He held out the black book, letting the monster see what it was. Jonah watched its eyes widen as it looked over the leather effect cover. It sure as hell weren’t no bible, Jonah thought glumly.
Jonah stood over the monster as it swooned to the ground. He picked it up roughly and held its face over the dirty pool of water, making the creature see the six screaming faces in the water. Then he threw it back roughly, reached over to the tool bag and collected what he needed. The sound of the town folk rose in the distance and carried to the creek. He parted his legs and stood over the dying thing, ready to begin what was necessary. Jonah looked down to its face, hollowed out now, a husky, paper mask. The dry lips moved and Jonah leant forward a little, not wanting to know what it said and leaning closer, that small part of him propelling him forward again, needing to know.
“Some of this…is yours,” it said weakly, the corners of its lips gathering; almost a half smile, almost a sneer.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Jonah mumbled in reply, before raising up what he had in his hand, the sound of the town folk swelling, masking the abominable noise as he went about his work.
Jonah made his way back to the town and headed back to his house. In the cellar he put all his tools back in the correct, hidden places. He washed and changed and drew the sheriff star back onto his chest. Last of all he slipped the black book, his finest, most terrible gift, back to its secret place, until the next time. There was enough time to look everything over once, see everything was as it should be and then he made his way back to the square.
All the folks were there and it gave him a sort of peace. Anxious eyes looked over to him and he nodded gently to each one of them, letting them know that they could all sleep safe tonight. The two deputies came over and understood immediately; a handshake passed between them and it was left at that. A few aimed a pat on the back, a tug of the shoulder and he accepted them all. But Jonah did it all without pausing, his path simple; it was one that stopped at the edges of a long, flowing dress.
They spoke a little, but mostly they just held each other’s hands, looked into each other’s eyes. The town gave them enough space to share these moments and he was grateful. Finally, Jonah drew her to the centre of the square, the band striking up a slow song, things readying for the midnight countdown. They danced, in a way, but mostly they just held each other close, and that was enough.
Jonah closed his eyes and pressed his head gently to her hair. He had lived a long, long time and would live for a fair while yet, the black book would see to that. In a few seconds, one century would slip away and a new one would come to pass, and he knew, with equal horror and wonder, that he may even see another or another after that. He would outlive more loves, watch more communities split apart and crumble, all of this. And in his dreams he saw the future, too; a squalid ugly thing, full of metal monsters and men and women with little more life in them than the thing that had cursed him not two hours before. But he would see these things too; bear witness to them, even as they repulsed him. He had little choice.
The chimes began. All around him folks jittered and moved, creating a swell of movement and commotion. The town was alive and safe, free of the grip of a monster and in debt to another. Jonah felt all this good natured chaos swell around him and opened his eyes. But he did not move, or relinquish his grip. Instead, he kept his face pressed to his Julianna, knowing, somewhere in his dirtied heart, that this was the last time he would truly be happy. The clock struck twelve above him, and a new era began.