There are a lot of eyes on her, as Daphne walks into the little coffee shop in the little town.
She doesn’t like what the thoughts behind those eyes seem to be.
Daphne’s footsteps click across the tiles of the floor. The shadows of her heels are next to the glaring reflections of the overhead lights. She reaches the counter. She has the waitress’ full attention. She says, “I can’t seem to find the exit to this town.”
“Ain’t none,” says the waitress.
Her nametag says LILY.
Daphne opens her mouth. Daphne closes her mouth. Daphne starts over.
“I’m sorry,” Daphne says, “but I must have misheard. I turned off the freeway into Nesiston a few hours ago to get gasoline for my van. Now I want to get back to the highway. But I can’t seem to find the right road. Could you tell me where it is?”
The waitress shakes her head. “Ain’t no road out. You’re in Nesiston fore’er. Damned like the rest of us in this l’il suburb of Hell.”
“Oh,” says Daphne.
A harsh masculine voice interrupts.
“Does she have anything?”
The question’s come from a man who’s sitting in one of the booths near the door, nursing a cup of coffee. He’s grim and grizzled and wearing a blue shirt. For a moment no one answers.
“Lord,” mutters the waitress, under her breath. “Hank’s demon-taken again.”
“I said,” Hank says, rising to his feet and assuming a bellicose stance, “Does she have anything?”
Daphne turns to face him.
“You’re drunk,” she says, voice low and cool. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“Drunk.” Hank looks back at his coffee. He sneers. Then he looks at her. “You’re new. You came from outside. You have stuff. Books? Parts? Food?”
He’s walking forward now. He’s grabbing at her purse. She tries to stop him, but his hand is on her wrist, much bigger than her wrist, and twisting it away; and she shouts. Hank’s other hand rises to hit her face; and then there is a delicate ringing of the bell at the door, and the noise.
It is low. It is terrible. It is a growling.
Daphne’s dog has pushed open the door of the shop, and is standing there, four feet splayed, mouth slightly open, and growling.
It is not a sane noise.
“I didn’t mean nothing,” says Hank. His hand is lowering to his side again. His eyes are full of white. “I didn’t mean nothing. It was the demons. The demons had me.”
“Back away,” says Daphne. “Sit down, against the counter. I’m leaving.”
Hank takes two steps back and a few steps around to the side. He sits down. He slumps back against the counter.
He looks very small.
Daphne goes. She stands by her dog.
“It’s just the demons,” says the waitress. She looks at Daphne. “Can’t blame Hank. There’s no liquor in the coffee. You’ll understand.”
“Come on,” says Daphne, and turns. The growling stops, as if she’d turned it off with a switch. Daphne walks away.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Daphne says.
There are cracks in the sidewalk. The asphalt’s worn down. She opens the door of her van and gets inside. Her dog scrambles over her and into the passenger’s seat.
“Come on,” Daphne says. “We’ll find a hotel.”
There’s a compass in the glove compartment. She fishes it out. It’s spinning.
There’s clouds overhead. They’re not like normal clouds, though. They’re like clouds spun up in an ice cream maker, streaks of cumulus all twisted and thinned.
Daphne drives around for a while before she finds the White Ice Hotel. She parks. She gets out. Her dog hops down. She goes in.
The lobby is empty, until she rings the bell.
After a while, a tall lean man skulks out. His name tag reads MAYHEW.
“Ah,” says Mayhew. “Ah. You are . . . new. New, yes?”
“I am passing through,” says Daphne.
“This is the Nesiston Hospitality Center,” says Mayhew. “It used to be a hotel. But now it is a hospitality center. It is a place for you to stay until you can settle into this town. You will need a job, of course. And a home. There are many homes. They are abandoned but in serviceable shape. It would be best, hm, if you found yourself a bachelor, but it is not necessary; there is not any real point, not in Nesiston, not where there are no children. I will assign you a room. You look like you would like a view. I will assign you a higher room. Is there anything I can explain? Are you familiar with your situation?”
He approaches her. He is holding out a pamphlet. He is a bit too close, a bit too far into her space, and there is the slightest hint of a growl.
Mayhew backs away, ever so marginally, still holding out the pamphlet. He looks down. His eyes widen slightly.
“You have one of those.”
Daphne says, “I have a dog. He is a good dog.”
Mayhew squats down. He looks into the dog’s eyes.
“He will need a pamphlet too,” says Mayhew. “Will he not?”
The dog’s throat works. It is clearly difficult. But with great effort, it manages a harsh whisper of words. “. . . I ruh-pose.”
Mayhew straightens, briskly. He walks back behind the counter and collects another pamphlet. He returns and offers them both to Daphne.
“I will give the two of you room 35. It is in, ah, adequate shape, given the exigencies, you understand. It is convenient to the stairs for walkies. I hope that the two of you shall settle well into Nesiston.”
He is leading them towards the elevator.
“Most people,” says Daphne. She licks her lips. “Most people are afraid.”
“Hm, yes,” agrees Mayhew. He presses the button. “I am afraid. He is a very frightening boy, isn’t he? Isn’t he?”
His hand is caressing the dog’s ear. The dog’s mouth opens in a pant.
“It is so typical,” says Mayhew. “That they should make such things, that they should train enhanced dogs as soldiers, that they should simply abandon them when the experiment did not succeed. But he has a conscience, hm? Don’t you? Good boy.”
“Rhycopath,” whispers the dog. But the dog does not press the point.
The elevator opens. Mayhew gestures Daphne and her dog in. She stands in the elevator. Mayhew presses a keycard into her palm.
“It does not matter,” says Mayhew. “So what if he is a killer? We are all killers, here.”
Daphne blinks at him.
The door closes and the elevator begins to rise.
“It’s weird, Scooby,” says Daphne.
“Everything,” she says. She walks to their room. She opens the door. She leads the dog in and she flops on the bed and she looks at the pamphlet. “Welcome to Nesiston.”
“Resiston,” whispers the dog. He pads over to the window. He puts his front paws on the window ledge and looks out at the sky.
“Nesiston used to be normal,” Daphne says. “Apparently. It used to have roads in and out. But then one day, suddenly, you’d be driving down the road out of town and you’d come out on main street again; or in some back alley; or, once, out of a child’s closet and right over her sleeping body. It didn’t work any better to walk. There just wasn’t any way out any more.”
Daphne goes silent for a while. She’s flipping through the pamphlet as if searching for something. Then she frowns.
“It doesn’t say where the food comes from,” she says. “Or the electricity. Or where the sewage goes. Just that Dexter Greene down at the TAE Research Center was nice enough to share some of his stockpiled supplies.”
“‘Not ruh-posed to ask questions,’” mumbles the dog. There’s old pain in his voice.
“Yeah,” says Daphne. “It’s just like that.”
She stands up. She goes to him. She scratches at his ears and he leans into her hand.
“It’s okay,” she says. “We’ll solve the mystery.”
The dog’s tail wags.
“Anyway,” says Daphne, “people started getting weird after a while. Their minds would be overwhelmed by demons, and they’d do horrible things. They’d kill. Or hurt. Or steal. And eventually everyone learned to live with it, ’cause if you didn’t forgive and forget when someone else was demon-ridden, what’d they do when you were?”
The dog’s eyes close.
“But no one’s going to do anything horrible to us, right, Scooby?”
Daphne looks at the sky. She yawns. “I’m going to nap,” she says. “Then we’ll get to the bottom of all this stuff.”
The dog looks languidly over at her as she rises; and it is one of those times when the look in those eyes terrifies her, and she must use all the control she has to keep her hands steady and her words kind and remember that the dog is usually safe for those he loves.
She is sleeping, tossing and turning, when a bark rings like a peal of thunder in the confines of the room. She is on her feet. She is looking around. She half-expects that there will be men with guns.
There are not.
But there is a violet light twisting in the eastern sky.
“There,” says the dog.
Daphne looks at the map of town in her pamphlet. “The TAE Research Center,” she says. “I should have known it would be at the bottom of this.”
They race out, down the stairs, and out the door.
Behind them, in the shadows, Mayhew looks regretful. He lifts the receiver of the phone. He places a call.
Daphne drives her van to the gravel lot in front of TAE Research Center. She parks. She and her dog get out. She marches to the front door and knocks.
The door, as if of its own volition, creaks open.
“Uh oh,” Daphne says.
They sneak forward, into the building’s main hall. They have not made it ten steps when the door, without obvious agency, slams closed.
“Bad,” says the dog.
There is a high groaning sound in the air. The building shakes.
Before them, strange and sudden, there is a man — no, not a man, but a thing like a man, without definite shape or form, blurring and twisting in the air.
“A demon,” whispers Daphne.
“You have come,” says the shape, “into Hell.”
Daphne can hear hissing. She feels strangely faint.
“Run,” she says.
They are running, but it is futile. The corridors twist and turn on themselves. Whichever way they run, they find themselves returning once again to the hall, and the colorless gas that even Daphne can smell, and the demon. Windows lead them into filing cabinets. Doorways that should open to the front open, instead, to the back of the hall. Once, Daphne emerges from a gap between two pillars to find her own hand shivering and blurring like the demon’s; and the scream that rips from her throat then is no human scream; and the dog reacts, and his teeth close on her arm, and they are still on her arm, set very gently into the bone, when she falls back and finds herself human again.
“Oh, oh, Scooby,” she says.
The dog opens his mouth. He backs away. He says, “Your blood. I taste your blood, Daphne.”
It is a lost sound, and she kneels and hugs him.
Then he is lunging, and she is falling, twisted by the sudden movement, and he is on the demon’s chest, having knocked it back from where it was standing right behind her, and his teeth are snapping and his claws are flailing at the demon’s chest, and suddenly, the demon in a voice like a man’s shouts, “Stop! Please stop!”
And the gas is no longer hissing out into the hall, and the demon is not blurred but is a man in a white coat, and Daphne realizes that the cold distant feeling in her mind is most likely shock.
“What . . . who . . .”
She looks at the man. She recognizes him from his photo in the pamphlet. “It’s Dexter Greene. You’re not a demon at all! You were just trying to scare us away.”
“Yes. Yes, yes. Please, call him off. Call off the dog.”
The dog begins to growl. But he backs away. His legs are stiff. His body is stiff. But he backs away.
“What he?” asks the dog.
“I don’t — wait,” says Daphne. “I understand. You did this, didn’t you? You turned space on the town in on itself. Just like you did to keep us from getting away, and to make yourself look so strange. You must be the one providing supplies and electricity. But why?”
“It is twisted space,” says Dexter Greene. “It is my greatest invention.”
“It is . . .”
“Rerverse,” says the dog. Then it coughs. “Puh. Puh. Puh-rerverse.”
“They were going to steal my invention,” says Dexter Greene. “The people I worked for. It was in my contract. They were going to steal my greatest invention, I would never have seen one dime over my salary, and they would have put it to use. But no. I showed them. I stole the laboratory. I stole the town. I made it my kind of place. Don’t you understand? I made myself a demon! I showed them what they deserved! I taught the people of Nesiston that they were in Hell! And they still loved me! They loved me as their savior and as their demon god!”
“Pathetic,” says Daphne.
Then she pauses.
“But what about the demons?” she says. “The possessions? The horrible crimes?”
Dexter looks small.
“They made that part up themselves,” he says.
It is hours later. They are driving away from Nesiston. The dog nudges Daphne.
“Stress,” he says.
So she pulls over and opens her medicine kit and takes out one of the dwindling supply of pills that helps her dog stay sane; and she tosses it to him; and he bites it from the air.
“There you are, Scooby,” she says.
And they drive on.