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Davey the Goliath was parked next to the Thing, and the strange trailer widely known as Eric the Half a Bug. The Thing was Carlos's personal vehicle, and Eric was his own creation, a travel trailer in the style of a teardrop where he usually slept. The scream in the morning air had scarcely died down before the iconic Beetle hood shot open. Carlos sat up with his 20-gauge at ready, then scrambled out, clad in gym shorts and a white undershirt. He reached up to close the hatch while he surveyed the camp, and then looked back inside as if he had forgotten something.
“You, Out,” he said succinctly.
The lilting voice of Lady Elayne answered, “I didn't ask to stay...” Carlos slammed the hood and stalked away, while the willowy woman made a gracefully discrete exit through a cut-down and reversed cab door on the far side of the bow.
Carlos came inside the van and rebandaged Meg's wound while Laramie recounted what Meg had told him of what happened. The one thing he mentioned observing himself was that he woke at the sound of her heavy breathing, and in the process saw her eyes open before she screamed. As they withdrew back out the door, they both mentioned “hagging” and “old hag” in their mutterings, which seemed to be jargon that needed no further explanation between them. Carlos nodded, and gave his student a stern, sad gaze. Meg's hands were trembling, but she felt more embarrassed than fearfully. The fact that so few people had gathered was, in many ways, making it all the more embarrassing. “Please, I had a bad dream, and I woke up thinking it was real,” Meg said, not believing it. “Okay? I know that, and I'm sorry I woke you.”
Lady Elayne strode nonchalantly through the midst of the bystanders. “We get a few screamers most every morning,” she said. She shrugged, and discretely pointed a finger at Carlos in the process. “Let's get you over to my place...” She led Meg, and Carlos and Laramie followed, and Indian Joe shuffled after them. They headed toward the strangest of the automotive apparitions in the fleet, a Beetle that had been massively modified into a miniature motorhome.
They entered the contraption which Carlos referred to as “the Bughaus” through an arched doorway in the side. A barrel-like vaulted roof, unusually convincing faux-wood paneling and at least one very real stained-glass window harkened to the old Gypsy wagons, and an assortment of occult sigils and paraphernalia inside and out was more Old World than New Age. There was a very cozy dinette in the rear, a postage-stamp kitchen where the shotgun seat had been, and a deployed fold-out bunk over the cab that was assuredly big enough for two. Meg tried not to jump to conclusions when she caught a glimpse of John Crapper hustling away.
“Sit down beside me, sweetheart,” Elayne said, patting the seat beside her. She was clearly addressing Laramie as he came through the curtain of beads just inside the archway. Meg was already seated across from her, looking a little apprehensively at a skull next to the stereotypical crystal ball on the table. The student took the offered seat and stretched his legs across the dinette. Meg could have sworn the temperature rose as Carlos entered and seated himself in the swiveling driver's seat. Joe stopped in the doorway, turned around and sat on the steps, where he began to rock and hum.
The redhead intently studied the crystal and the skull, one after the other. After a minute or so, she turned it toward Meg, and worked the jaw like a puppet as she said in a comical voice, “Hi Meg. Howdy, Dr. W.” She held the skull almost to Laramie's ear. “Hello handsome.” She pointed the skull almost at Laramie's ear. Then she casually stuck the clearly fake skull on a shelf overhead.
Meg found the courage to ask, “What the hell are you about?”
Elayne stretched out her lithe arms, and after a moment, Meg complied with her obvious wish and took the other woman's hands. “To start with, sweetheart, there ain't no Hell,” Elayne said with a jarring drawl. “Least not like anything they told you in Sunday school. There's a God in heaven above, an' maybe there's a Devil below, but if there's anything bad on the other side, honey, it's just more shite we do to ourselves.”
Elayne reached out and took her hands. The trembling that had not quite subsided grew strong indeed, but Elayne held tighter, pulling Meg's arms straight and leaning forward as if inspecting the wound beneath the bandage. “You are hurt, quite badly,” she said. “But it's not this wound that will kill you.” There was no question that the potential double meaning was intended.
Carlos swiveled and propped his feet up on the table. “Her legal name's Maureen O'Hallaghan, and she was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin,” he said with a grin. “Raised there, too, when she wasn't bouncin' 'round the Pacific. Her old man was a naval officer, and her ma was a nurse.”
“So what are you saying?” Meg asked.
“She's telling you the good news,” Carlos said. “From what we've seen, two out of three, three outta four people in your position would be showing symptoms that will kill them in a week: Limited healing in the wound, if any; infections that flare back up, if they got better at all, signs of similar problems in other injuries. By comparison,your responses so far put you in the top ten percent.”
“What about what I saw?” Meg asked. “Does it mean something?
“Well, that i'n't bad news, either,” Carlos said. “It wasn't real, but it wasn't exactly a dream either. We've seen it before, and we call it a haggin'. There's old legends, see, about witches that pin people in their beds and tries to smother 'em. Lore about vampire attacks is very similar. It's a real phenomenon that the shrinks and paranormal investigators have studied for years. That's what put us onto it, 'cause George studies up on that weird stuff. What really happens is, sometimes, literally, parts of a person's brain can be awake while others are asleep. You could have your eyes open, but not be able to move because your brain's still getting' in gear. An' things that start out as dreams in the parts that are on snooze mode could appear as if they were right there in your bedroom. It's happened all over the world, all through history. It may happen more often in times of war, plague and the like...”
“It happen to my people.” Joe spoke almost robotically, still staring out the door. “White men make us go on reservation with other tribes, tribes that drive us from our land before white men come. They send us away from them, to live in dead men's houses and sleep in dead men's blankets. They have many dead. Then our men see dead men, and die, and after they are seen by other men, and speak to them, and they die. This, my grandfather tell me. His one of only three families that live. They remember the old ways, speak the words to tell the dead men to go to place of the dead. They remember the taboo...” He looked over his shoulder and all but hissed, “Do no talk to dead.”
“So what,” Meg said, “I'm going to die because I saw something?”
“What did you see?” Elayne said. “Tell me exactly.” Only then did Meg describe fleeing her Greg, in the process telling more than a little about what he had put her through before that ordeal.
“...And then you saw him, because he is still with you in your mind,” Elayne said. “He is a wound upon your soul, and if it does not heal, neither will this wound on your body.”
Meg looked to Carlos. “Aye, it's true enough,” Carlos said. “Don't get me wrong, any bite can be nasty business, and with them, anybody who doesn't get penicillin, lots of it and bloody quick is a goner regardless. But there were too many people who died even after treatment to be just the bugs. Quite simply, the immune system weakens or quits entirely. It affects coagulation, too, you know, the way stuff in the blood patches leaks. Nothing could ever be identified as an agent, and finally they concluded that the only explanation was some kind of psychological effect.
“Mostly, it checked out with what people already knew. Placebo cures, psychosomatic illnesses, bloody voodoo curses, all tell the same story. If you tell people they're going to live or die, there's always going to be a statistically significant group who will make it happen. And if the old witchdoctors' results are anything to go by, it's quite a bit easier to take someone's life than save it.”
“So what you're saying is,” Meg said, “I'm going to die, and it's all in my head.”
“No,” Elayne said. “That is the wisdom of the world talking. Those who said that the mind has powers over the body admitted one truth, but denied another, that there are powers greater than both. You know better. They are the powers that do harm, made visible in the flesh. Even if you escape them, you cannot overcome them, without the aid of the powers that do men good.”
Meg glanced to Carlos. “Well, I'll tell you this much,” he said. “They aren't all in your head, and they will be coming for you every chance they get. If you can't hold it together up here, they're gonna succeed.”
After a long silence, Meg said, “How long do I have? Really.”
“Far as we know, the record's ten weeks,” Carlos said. “Least that's what you get if you go by what he told us. He was with us for six, him and his family. We put 'em in a Winnebago, back when we had two. Then one night, he up and stabbed his mother-in-law in the shower, strangled his wife in bed, and hanged himself while carbon monoxide was smothering the kids in their sleep. When I found 'em, he was the only one still movin'.”
“Sounds like you would be better off just leaving me,” Meg said.
“No way in 'ell,” Carlos said. “We're giving you our best, which is why we're talking to you up front. And I'll admit, we aren't just doing it for you. We're doing it because we're tired of losing people, and we wanna know if we ever really had a chance. But if you aren't on board with that, if you aren't gonna do your very best and trust us for the rest, then I'm telling you to go get in that Audi and drive as fast as you can in any direction we aren't goin'.”
Meg met his stern gaze, while Elayne continued to clasp her hand gently. “All right,” she said. “I'll stay.”
Soon, she left with Laramie to get some breakfast. As Carlos got up to depart, Elayne said with a smile, “You didn't quite tell her everything. Did you?”
He shrugged. “If we made an announcement every time one of those things wandered in and out of camp, nobody'd have a good night's sleep again.”