On the way to Team Mwerte’s temporary base of operations in Michigan, Charlie Tremble took Adriana Priest shopping where she bought socks and a few other supplies. Afterward he treated her to lunch at a bustling diner with a façade that glowed dim neon under the icy blue October sky.
“OK, are you ready for this?” He put his cell phone down on the pockmarked linoleum table between them and pressed play, and a video started.
Adriana recognized the three people on the small screen. The one in the middle, with hair like multicolored pom-poms, was Jennifer “Jennacide” Sydanski. Next to her was Hazel “Haze” Yarrow, and in the back, Tyler Zane, looking somewhat sheepish. Adriana knew them well, particularly Tyler. The three of them made up about half of The SoPSIity, a rival Shriexing clan.
“Heeeeey there, bitches at Team Mwerte!” That came from Jennacide, who leaned toward the camera and flashed a generic gang sign. “Welcome to the Autumn Shriexing season!”
Adriana laughed. “What a sorority girl.”
Haze spoke next: “We here at SoPSIity are just sending y’all a friendly little video welcome to let you know that this year, the shit is motherfucking ON.”
“That’s right, bitches!” Jennacide said. “This year we are knocking you off the top of the hill, yo, yo, wussup!”
Haze turned to her. “Did you just say ‘yo, yo, wussup’? Seriously?”
“Haze, shut it!” Jennacide hissed from the side of her mouth. “Just roll with it!” Then back to the camera: “We’re going to take ALL your cred and ALL your sponsors. And you know what else?”
Haze picked it up: “We’re going to beat you to Stumpy. That’s right, we said it. STUMPY. Hear that, fools? The CHALLENGE IS ISSUED.”
Jennacide: “We are challenging you, here in front of the entire Shriexing community. You say you’re the best. Now it’s time to prove it. Get to Stumpy before we do or prepare to eat humble pie and bow to your new masters. Because we are gunning for you, bitches!”
Haze took over, her green eyes nearly filling the screen. “WE ARE GOING TO RAPE YOUR DEAD SKULLS!”
“Jesus! Haze! Enough with the rape already! It’s supposed to be a friendly challenge.”
“Nothing friendly about the GAME, cuz. Oh, hey Tyler, thanks for stopping by. Anything to say to help the cause?”
Tyler winked at the camera. “Hi Adriana.”
Adriana barked a laugh. “Whoops!”
Jennacide sighed. “OK. I think we’re done here. Anyway, have a GREAT season, Team Mwerte, and look forward to us crushing your dreams into dust. Warriors, come out to play, yo, yo, wussuuuup!”
Haze leaned into the camera. “Because we have actual psychics on our team, unlike you vanilla-brained FOOLS! The SoPSIity… OUT. OK, seriously. Jenna. We have to talk about this ‘yo, yo, wussup’ thing.”
The video ended. “That was cute,” Adriana said.
“Cute? Adriana, these guys are gunning for us.”
“I heard them mention that.”
“Our sponsorships are on the line.”
“Nah. But if the team is worried, let’s change it up and go after Stumpy ourselves.”
“Easier said than done.”
“Why? He’s just a big, dumb camp killer.”
“Yes. A supernatural one.”
Their waitress came to their booth. “Sweetie, I love your hair, by the way. What kind of dye did you use?” Adriana’s hair was honey blonde on the right and white on the left, split evenly down the middle.
“It isn’t a dye job. My hair turned white after the first time I was nearly murdered by a ghost.”
“Oh. I see. You kids are some of them ghost hunter types.”
“Close. We’re Shriexers. We’re to ghost hunters what the Navy SEALs are to a handful of kids with cap guns.”
“Ah. OK. You guys need drinks? ”
“Coffee,” Charlie said.
“Water for me.”
“You got it.” The waitress went away.
“Adriana, I don’t think you’re supposed to announce it like that. We’re supposed to be a secret society, and all that?”
“I tell people all the time. Anyway, yes, the big bad killer is supernatural, oooh, what a change from what we do nearly every day, Charlie. He has one arm.”
“And a giant, double-bladed axe!”
“So, stay on the side without an arm!”
“Ugh.” He shook his head, and she liked the way his mass of curly dark hair flopped about. “I’m just saying, we would have a lot of backtracking to do to get up to speed, and SoPSIity is already miles ahead.”
“Good thing we love a challenge.”
His phone rang. He looked at the screen. “Oh. I have to take this.”
“Say hello to your mystery girlfriend for me.”
He shot her an inscrutable look and darted off.
Adriana tapped a beat on the table. She was full of nervous energy. This. This right here is was what she lived for. She Shriexed all year, but during the early summer and Autumn seasons she got to do it with her friends. Team Mwerte. They were more than friends, they were her family, her—
Something kicked her foot. It came from her new bag, which rested on the floor against her leg. It was a gift from one of her personal sponsors, who she knew only as “The Colonel.” It looked something like a messenger bag, but rounder and slightly curved to hug her hip. Retractable straps could be fastened around one leg to keep it from becoming a snag hazard, and it was made with military-grade materials, designed to survive even the most grueling haunt.
She hadn’t tested the bag in the field yet, and at the moment it just held the bare essentials she needed for her journey out here to Michigan. The rest of her things she had sent ahead by UPS last week, where they hopefully waited for her at the base of operations.
A feathery voice by her feet said, “Oh.”
What in the name of the Goddess? As she started to reach for the bag, the waitress returned.
“Hey sweetie. I just wanted to tell you: if you kids are into that ghost stuff, well, a lot of crazy things have been going on around these parts. Started about a week ago.”
“Really? Tell me!”
“Well. I usually don’t like to talk about such things. I always tried to stay far away from supernatural happenings, you know? It’s the providence of the Devil.”
“Sure, I understand.” Her bag twitched against her leg. She fixed her smile and continued to meet the waitress’ eyes.
“But I hear things, working here and chatting with everyone all day, you know. You see that old gent there, three booths down? That’s Mr. Hawson. Claims a UFO, a flat disc of a thing big as two barns, hung over his house out on Old Mill Road two nights ago. Was there for half an hour. See his skin?”
Mr. Hawson sat in a booth with two other men, each one hunched over their table, whispering intently. His bald head was beet-red.
“Sunburn. Or radiation. He never went outside. He got that burn through the roof of his house.”
“Oh!” something said, loudly, from within Adriana’s bag.
“Oh, is right,” the waitress replied. “But that’s not the half of it. Over there, see that woman with the blue blouse? That’s my friend Susanne from high school. A few days ago, something lunged at her out of her own bedroom closet. Said it was covered in a stinking, stained sheet, and underneath she could see it had hairy feet and sharp claws. Chased her outside where she jumped in her station wagon and drove off like the hounds of hell were on her heels. She’s been staying at my place, hasn’t been back to her own since.”
“Wow. Very cool.”
“And that cute couple over there, you see them? Couple…” She leaned in. “Couple gay people. They live right next to the cemetery. The side of their house facing it? Covered in scratches. And I do mean, from the gutters to the ground, deep scratches. Appeared just a week ago today. And over there, you see—”
“Does everyone in the diner right now, do they all have recent stories like this?”
The waitress looked around. She pursed her lips. “Yeah. I guess they do, now that you mention it.”
“I don’t want to talk about that. Like I said, it’s the providence of the Devil.”
Adriana considered telling her that she was using the word ‘providence’ incorrectly but thought better of it. “I was attacked by an animate pile of old clothes today.”
“Just a couple hours ago, in fact.”
“You kids ready to order, or what?
“Just waiting for my friend to return.”
“I’ll be back then. He’s a cutie. Good work honey.”
“We’re not together.”
“Sure you’re not.” She laughed.
Adriana thought, what the hell? As soon as the waitress was gone, she bent to look under the table. Her bag was hovering several inches off the floor.
“Oh, shit!” She pushed it back down and put her feet on it.
Charlie returned soon after.
“Hey, did you—”
“Nothing,” Adriana said, all smiles.
“I… didn’t ask? Why, what’s…?”
“How’s your girlfriend? How does that even work, by the way? Does she understand exactly what it is you get up to twice a year?”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about. Has the waitress been by yet?”
“Yes. And she told me this entire town is in the midst of a full paranormal upheaval. So, hear me out, I was thinking—”
“Nope. No. Let me stop you right there.”
“This season we are going to focus. Everyone is in agreement. And by ‘we,’ we mean ‘you.’”
She spoke in an exaggerated male voice. “I’m Charlie, and I’m a total dude, laying down the law on the female.”
He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Hey, can I see your new bag?”
She froze. “My bag?”
“Yeah, the one your sponsor sent you. Maybe everyone on the team needs one. Can I see it?”
“You know… now really isn’t a good time.”
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