Caren

“Long Night Moon”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: STYLIZED GORE

Caren stood watching Ash walk away, thinking how almost-cartoonishly tiny he looked. Took a drag, went into a coughing fit, rubbed at her chest.

Checked the time on her phone.

A little after eleven. Nowhere near her own grown-up bedtime.

She opened up her texts—froze for one beat at the sight of Sylvan’s thread right below Ash’s, with that last message: New place!! and the ex-girlfriend’s address, before deleting it, along with Sylvan’s entry in her contacts.

She took a moment to replace the name Daddy’s Boy with Ash in her address book, then hopped over to her favorites and selected Peri.

Caren stared at the blank text field to Peri for several seconds, thumbs hovering over the keyboard, then backed out to her main address book and jumped to F.

dtf? she fired off to Ellis, then shoved her phone back in her pocket and took another deep, lung-scorching drag.

Caren wandered up Richmond Street to the nearest non-sports bar, ordered another Maker’s Mark (double), demolished it. Put “Idiot” by Wavves on the jukebox, sat headbanging and drumming on the bar top. Waved her empty rocks glass at the bartender for a refill.

Ellis’s reply came:

Damn gurl you thirsty as hell this weekend. I already got company tonite but hmu literally any other time 👅💦

Caren unleashed a string of the foulest epithets in her vocabulary, returned to the F section of her contacts, hit send on indecent proposals to a couple more prospects.

Paused to stare briefly at Luke’s text feed, at those two blunt gray check marks.

Did some hasty swiping on Tinder before again stuffing her phone in her pocket and going to town on both her whisky and the bar-top-cum-percussion-instrument.

An old white dude in a blazer with a tumbler one-quarter-full of Scotch pulled a stool up next to her. Looked her over slowly head to toe, licked his lips, flashed a mouthful of veneers.

One knock-down-drag-out bar brawl later (and a couple of trophy veneers in her pocket), Caren found herself stumbling her way down the street toward where she was seventy-two-percent sure she remembered parking Porkchop, turning her now-empty cigarette box upside down and checking her phone for the millionth time.

No responses from her old hookups so far. Even Tinder was coming up dry.

It was going on two a.m. now. All the bars would be closing soon.

But there had to be something fucking else she could do besides just…go home.

Caren noticed a big-eyed girl standing under the streetlight up ahead—probably in her late teens, natural hair floating gauzily in the winter breeze. She was dressed weirdly light for the cold in a bright green tulle skirt and green ballet flats, a matching green snake draped on her bare arm like a vine. Some kind of street performer, Caren guessed. As she got closer to the girl, she intensified her fuck-off scowl and looked pointedly in the other direction.

I am so not feeling any cutesy circus shit.

The girl pranced right into Caren’s path anyway. Because of course she did. “Penny for a magic show?”

“A penny? You fuckin’ serious? What, is ‘magic show’ some kinda euphemism?”

The girl gave an exaggerated shrug. Caren could have almost sworn the snake shrugged too. “I figure everybody’s got a penny.”

“Bish, you weird. I am so not in the mood for whatever this is.”

“Have you noticed the moon tonight?”

Caren spared a glance at the pale gold disc.

Decided she hated it with every fiber of her being.

“It looks full, doesn’t it?” the girl went on. “But actually, the moon is only ever truly full for like an instant. This so-called ‘Long Night Moon’ was full yesterday at 12:49 p.m. Where were you at 12:49 p.m. on Saturday, December 22nd, 2018?”

Caren scrunched up her features in a grimace, which at the moment seemed to be the ritual necessary to call up a recent memory. Her facial muscles sustained said grimace in reaction to what she remembered. “In bed with fucking Ellis.”

“Ooooo!” The girl clasped her hands, swayed dreamily. The snake swayed too. “Maybe it’s your destiny to marry fucking Ellis.”

“Will you please get off my dick right now. Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want it.”

“Balderdash!” sang the girl, with a balletic little spin. “Everybody likes a magic show.”

“I still don’t know what the fuck you mean by ‘magic show,’ but I’ve got as much fucking magic in my life as I can handle—’kay?”

“Ya sure? ’Cause you don’t look like you’re having any fun.”

“Girl, the last thing magic is is fun. Being fucking real here? I’d have my fucking arms and legs cut off if it meant I never had to see another act of fucking magic.”

The girl held up a white dandelion. “Make a wish.”

“Bitch. Leave me alone.” Caren blinked. “Where’d you even get that? It’s fuckin’ December.”

“Any wish. If you could have anything—and I mean anything—anything on Earth…” The girl swept her arm grandly toward the sky: “…in space!” She wiggled her eyebrows mysteriously: “…or beyond…” Once again held out the dandelion: “…what would you wish for?”

Caren looked her in the eyes. “You. To leave me. The fuck. Alone.” She huffed and puffed and blew the dandelion bare with her whisky dragon breath. A gust of cold wind snatched every last seed away.

The girl let the denuded stem fall to the pavement with a low, pitiful meow. “You can’t even imagine it…can you?”

“Imagine what.”

The performance seemed to stop for a moment. The girl simply stood there, looking Caren in the eyes. “What it would be like to get what you want.”

The snake fixed Caren in its unblinking gaze, flicked its narrow tongue. Caren stared into its eyes. Felt a strange twist in the bottom of her gut. “I can imagine never having to look at your stupid face or your stupid snake’s face ever again.”

The girl tenderly stroked the snake’s head, donned an exaggerated pout. “Awww, be nice to Snakey! She likes you.”

“Your snake’s name is ‘Snakey’?” Caren tossed back as she shuffled past. “’Sa stupid fuckin’ name.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, Snakey thinks Caren is a stupid fuckin’ name.”

Caren flung a lazy bird finger over her shoulder.

Then stopped. “Wait a—fuck—I never told you my—?”

But when she looked back, both girl and snake were gone.

“Fucking,” she mumbled to herself. Did a three-sixty turn in place that almost sent her pitching to the pavement, then patted her coat for her balisong before staggering on.

•─────·☾ ☽⋅─────•

There was nowhere to go at this hour, and still no one even halfway-acceptable to fuck, so Caren shambled on past Porkchop in the direction of home, which was only a few blocks north. Stopped into the supermarket for a pack of Marlboro Reds; stood on the street corner in front of her building and smoked two of them. She was piss-drunk and at serious risk of tipping over by now, but would almost rather pass out on the sidewalk than go inside her freezing apartment, where she was sure it would be waiting for her…that thing in the corner of her mind…the old dark Not-Yet-Named. Its eyes just beginning to open, a pair of drowsy red slits in the shadows.

But in the end there was no way she could hold herself upright any longer, and she really didn’t care for the thought of that group of noisy dudebrahs outside the just-now-closed bar across the street finding her unconscious. So she lumbered inside and up the spinning staircase with its stuttering, migraine-inducing fluorescent lights, clinging to the railing for dear life all the way up, one heavy boot in front of the other.

Her place was even colder than she’d expected. Caren left her coat on, pitched around turning on as many lights as she could get to before collapsing onto her futon. She wanted to put some kind of bullshit on YouTube for the noise, but she had no idea where any of her remotes might be among the dirty laundry, unopened mail, and snack food wrappers, and there was no conducting a search in the cards…now that she was down, she was gravity’s bitch, and wouldn’t be able to budge till she slept it off.

So all she managed to do was hit play on her Spotify screamo/hardcore playlist before her apartment went reeling away, and nothingness closed in.

•─────·☾ ☽⋅─────•

“If you could have anything,” sang the snake-girl, “and I mean anything—anything on Earth, in space or beyond…”

Caren picked up her phone, opened the new text from Luke:

I’m right here dummy ;P, it said.

She rolled over, found him lying beside her, his dimpled cheek resting in his giant puppy hand.

“I knew it.” She punched him on the arm. “Where the fuck were you?”

He grinned. “Been right here this whole time.”

She took his face between her hands, pressed her forehead to his.

Let go at once, like she’d been burned, as his head came loose from his neck, his smiling eyes suddenly vacant.

His head started rolling away.

“No no no no no no no…”

Summertime. Manayunk Brewing Company, a little table by the river, margaritas, salt sparkling on glass. Sylvan squinting at the setting sun’s reflection on the water, his blond hair stirring in the breeze, catching the golden light.

“That’s right, Care,” he grinned. “Six whole months sober.”

Caren had no idea why, but she wanted to cry. “Dude! That’s so rad!”

A little girl with blond hair came running out of the restaurant. “Daddy!”

“Sam!” Sylvan reached out to scoop her up.

“Are you coming home now?” she asked.

As he lifted her, Sylvan’s arms and legs snapped loose from his body. The girl hit the deck with a scream, followed by her dad’s trunk. The sun turned blue, stretched lightning tendrils toward the limbless man writhing on the floor—set him aflame.

“STOP! STOP! STOP!” Samantha shrieked over and over. She had black hair now, and glasses—turned to Caren, eyes blazing with accusation, flung out her left palm, traced the glowing tattoos on her arm. Caren closed her eyes tight, braced for the stream of Greek fire that came billowing her way. Wondered what it would feel like to burn.

Early autumn, under a Harvest Moon. Six Flags Great Adventure. Smell of apple cider and bonfires. Hand-in-hand with Mom and Dad, the two of them picking Caren up, swinging her small body between them while she laughed and laughed. The way her heart thrilled at the sounds of all the rides, so many—and she was going to ride them all, straight into the sky, to the big round moon!

She spotted the Viper up ahead, broke loose from Mom and Dad and went running toward it, pointing. “That one next! That one next! Please, Mommy? Daddy? Pleeease?” She jumped up and down, turned back toward them.

But Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found.

Caren turned in a circle, scanning around her, then went running through the crowd, searching this way and that—couldn’t see anything but strangers’ legs. The full moon glared down. The rides roared so loud she couldn’t hear her own voice crying.

She finally saw Dad, but he looked old now, so old and weird and thin, and he was lying in a hospital bed, and he had this wary animal glint in his eyes like he didn’t know who she was.

The Viper thundered behind her, louder now, closer. She felt a strong wind at her back, whipping her hair.

“We wouldn’t be in this fucking position if you hadn’t left!” Caren screamed at her father. “I hope you fucking rot in this place!”

“You’re just like your mother, you evil little bitch,” he spat back.

Caren loosed a banshee wail that felt like it would disintegrate her body into atoms. The Viper whooshed into view—except it wasn’t a roller coaster now.

It was a massive snake, fangs bared.

The earth shook, began to crumble as the snake swallowed Caren’s father right out of his bed, then pitched up, up, up, into the sky, jaws open wide, straight toward the bright round disc of the moon.

Caren jerked awake to the worst headache of her life and an unopened gas bill stuck to the drool on her cheek. “Moor” by Every Time I Die was squalling from her now-almost-dead phone. By the angle of the sunlight—which she wished to God she could shoot right in its stupid face—it was late afternoon.

She sat up with a whimper, swatted away the piece of mail, fumbled on the side table for ibuprofen and the hormones she’d missed taking the night before, praying to God she wouldn’t hork them all up the second she got them down. Rubbed her eyes, plugged her phone into the shitty lamp charger on the table. Lit a cigarette.

Checked her texts.

Forever two gray check marks…forever a pang in the chest.

She had four messages from Ash: one letting her know when he’d first arrived in Philly more than three hours ago, then one on the hour every hour since, checking if she was awake yet. There was also an eager affirmative from one of the old hookups she’d texted last night—“Too late, fucker,” she muttered, deleting it—and a message from Nathaniel:

Morning Caren, it’s Nathaniel! Hope you slept well, let me know where you want to meet up 🙂

Caren texted him back—

hey i will let u know soon, gotta check in w ash

—then fired off a reply to Ash:

ok ok i’m up, u choose the meeting place this time, all my daytime hangouts are shitty diners w shitty diner food

An hour-ish later, Caren dragged ass into FUEL Healthy Kitchen on Walnut Street.

She spotted Ash sitting in a booth toward the back with a MacBook Air and a stack of old books on the table in front of him, nursing a mug of piping-hot tea. Today he’d tamed his black mane into a smooth little ponytail at the nape of his neck, which somehow made him look even more petite than usual.

“Hey, Killer.” Caren slumped into the seat across from him, squinted over the menu she’d grabbed at the front. “‘Asian Power Bowl’—yooo, that’s what they used to call me back in high school.”

Ash fixed her with his customary flat stare.

“This place got anything with trans fats in it?” she tried.

“Definitely not.”

“Refined carbs?”

“Nope.”

Caren felt glad to see him seemingly mostly back to his bitchy self. “What the hell am I supposed to soak up all the whisky with, then?”

Without explanation, he got up and walked off.

Caren watched him acquire a spring water and a cup from the counter. He returned, sat down, and meticulously measured out a portion each of two different-colored powders he produced from little baggies in the liner of his coat.

“You look like a drug dealer,” said Caren.

Ash’s expression was relaxed as he stirred the portions of powder into a quantity of water he’d poured into the cup. The mixture turned a dark beet-purple, frothy on top.

“Drink this.” He twirled a stir through the liquid, pushed the cup toward her. “One gulp.”

Caren shrugged, did as she was told.

… Blinked, looked around in wonderment as her hangover dissolved. “Holy shit, that’s fast-acting. What are you, a fucking wizard?”

He didn’t look amused. She was starting to wonder if it wasn’t so much he was an asshole as he just didn’t get jokes. “I pulled up Enforcement’s files on the Leeches,” he said, lowering his voice. “Then visited Arcadia Library for some further research into…their kind.”

“Goo goo gah gah, you’re a baby!” came a familiar voice, blaring over the general restaurant ambience like a trumpet. “Your whole experience of life is an undifferentiated stream of sensory phenomena!”

Caren and Ash both looked, saw Sicko Mode in his pinstripe suit and wool coat making fish faces at the giggling, cooing occupant of a stroller, the woman behind which was eyeing him with a wary smile. Nathaniel was on his way over to them, hands pocketed in his cashmere coat.

“You have no ego, no theory of mind! No concept nor fear of annihilation!” Sicko Mode monologued on behind him.

Nathaniel slid into the seat beside Caren. “Hey. Sorry we took so long. Had to find parking for Baby.”

“… Your car?” said Caren.

“You guessed it.”

“Gotcha, no worries. I pretty much just got here.”

“How’s y’all’s day so far?”

Caren and Ash looked at each other.

“Busy,” said Ash.

“Mine just got started,” said Caren.

“I feel you,” said Nathaniel. He drummed his fingers briefly on the table, shrugged his coat off onto the back of his seat. “Last night was, uh…pretty heavy.”

Sicko Mode appeared beside him. “I love babies!” he announced, with a giddy clap of his hands.

Caren eyed him. “Bet they taste like chicken, don’t they?”

He stuck out his tongue at her, plunked down in the seat next to Ash. “Whoa, I’m really likin’ the ponytail, Pidge.”

“Thanks, Sicko Mode,” said Ash.

Nathaniel snorted into his sleeve, covered it up with a cough. “Um…Soren sends his regards. He said you’re both welcome to visit anytime, and he’d like to have another dinner soon with, uh…with lighter entertainment this time. Actually, Mr. Grenville, he’d love it if you gave us a full harpsichord concert.”

Ash looked at him round-eyed. “Um…yes. Of course. I’d be honored.” His gaze darted around, and an awkward length of time passed before he added, almost inaudibly, “You can call me Ash.”

“Hmm?” Nathaniel leaned in like he wasn’t sure what he’d said. Then, “Oh, Ash! Yeah, sure thing. You can call me Nathaniel. So, Caren, what’s the deal with this Leech hangout we’re gonna be scoping?”

“It’s a late-night teahouse,” said Caren. “Doesn’t open till eight.”

“Oh, word—well, that makes sense,” said Nathaniel. “So we have time to do a little planning, maybe grab a nice dinner somewhere first. My treat.”

“Oh, fuck, yes. I could really use some real food.” Caren switched her gaze to Ash. “No offense.”

The alchemist held up a palm, None taken.

“Ash tells me he’s been doing some research,” Caren went on. “I think he might have, like, a little briefing prepared for us or something?”

“Oh, goody, goody gumdrops!” Sicko Mode rubbed his hands together, rolled his eyes ecstatically.

Ash turned his laptop around to reveal a Google Slides presentation. Pushed his glasses up his nose, glanced around to make sure no mundanes were within hearing range.

Turned his attention back to his small audience. “Let’s talk about vampires.”

NEXT EPISODE: ASH – “ASH TO GOLD”
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