It was the old, old story, he felt: handsome stranger comes to town, walks in on a feast complete with pretty (and pretty interested) girls, has a great time—and wakes up a night later about to be brutally sacrificed in order to save the village from a terrible drought.
“Seen it a thousand times,” he said out loud, trying to get more comfortable in his bonds.
“No you haven’t,” he answered himself. “Before this, you’d never walked more than three days from home.”
The priest came, carrying a horn. He sat down next to the stone.
“Sunrise soon,” he said, turning to look at the stranger.
“I’m aware of it,” agreed the stranger.
The priest lifted the horn. “We give the sacrifice a forgetting drink, if he wishes.”
“No, thank you,” said the stranger after a while.
The priest shrugged.
“I’ve had all night to wonder,” said the stranger. “What is the point? What is the point of killing a perfectly healthy young man who would be much better off fathering strong children and fighting off wolves and catamounts?”
“Hopefully you’ve already done the first thing. Feast, remember?” Said the priest, lifting the cup.
“Not much of it,” replied the stranger, smiling though he had begun to shake.
“Things are bad,” said the priest. “You saw.”
“I did,” said the stranger, remembering how thin the women had been, how easily tired.
“It’s how we’ve always done it,” said the priest. There was a sound like a gourd dropping, and the priest sighed.
The sigh went on for too long; the priest folded over. A young woman stood over him, the butt of her hunting knife in her hand.
While she cut the stranger’s bonds, she said, “not any more.”
Two more women stepped from the edge of the grove. They looked at the priest, nodded at her.
“The sacrifice went well,” said one.
“No! Not a sacrifice!” snapped the young woman. She looked at the stranger. “Time to go,” she said, holding out his belt and kit.
He looked once over his shoulder, to see the two women gently lifting the priest; the woman tugged his hand over the hill. On the other side, the sun was rising.
“That is the most fine and beautiful sight I have ever seen,” he said to her. She smiled at him. “Like every day we get,” she agreed.
My uncle gave me a thunderstorm seed for my 14th birthday. I had just unwrapped three PS games (none of the cool ones, Mom didn’t want the violence to rot my moral fiber, whatever) and a Judy Blume book from my misguided Aunt Cheryl (hello, I’m a boy! What was she thinking?!). I picked up a tiny box next, and when I read Uncle Tom’s name in the card, I felt a jolt of disappointment: this was the uncle who had given me a power drill the year before, and frankly I was expecting something, well, bigger.
But I smiled my fake polite smile, which I have had plenty of chance to practice with six aunts and uncles and not enough kids to dilute their attention, and unwrapped the box.
At the exact moment that I opened the lid and saw the plain gray seed, about the same size as a cherry pit, my uncle said, “I know it looks kind of boring.”
“Yeah,” I said, relieved.
“Well, don’t be fooled when something comes in a boring package. Don’t touch it!”
I pulled my finger back.
“What is it?” I asked, automatically putting the box in Aunt Cheryl’s hand when she reached for it.
Each aunt examined it, nodding solemnly before she passed it to the next, and I could tell everyone else knew it was.
“Something for the future,” he said mysteriously. “Plant it when you want something exciting to happen, but only when you’re really serious, not when you just feel bored. Plant it before a hot date,” he smiled.
“Tom,” said Aunt Cheryl in a scolding voice, but I saw her cheek twitch before she could hide her smile. He ignored her the same way I ignore my sister sometimes.
“Don’t you think he’s a little young…?” My mother asked him in the kitchen later, when she thought I was outside playing with my youngest uncle.
“Oh, I don’t know. You guys have already got him thinking about Yale,” he said, laughing.
I forgot about the thunderstorm seed until the night before my junior prom. I had a special date for the prom: a girl I hadn’t noticed at the start of the year, mostly because she sat at the front of the class with the other brains. But one day in February, when school couldn’t have been any grayer, she made a joke and I fell out of my seat laughing.
And so, in that spring when prom dresses and acceptance letters bloomed, on a nervous night after I had picked up my tuxedo, I planted the seed.
All I can say is, bless Uncle Tom. He never told me where he got it from.
A. Portland, Oregon
1. Grand adventure is calling!
2. Slide your ass out of bed.
3. Drink a Stumptown or three.
4. Clear IPAs from your head.
5. Gas up the Subie wagon!
6. Put on your old Birks!
7. You’re in Oregon camo.
8. (In the city that works.)
9. Avoid roads with bored cops.
10. (You don’t want to go down.)
11. Stash the weed! Crank some indie!
12. Head straight south out of town.
637 miles later (about 10 hours, 2 minutes):
B. San Francisco, California
1. Cross your choice of big bridges.
2. Pick one – pay the damn toll!
3. Go up and go down.
4. Don’t stop at stop signs – just roll!
5. Go up and go down.
6. Get lost and then again!
7. Do E with a homeless dude.
8. He’ll become your best friend!
9. Good luck finding parking.
10. (Though it helps some to pray.)
11. Kick the homeless dude out.
12. And head south to L.A.
381 miles later (about 6 hours, 26 minutes – up to 7 hours, 50 minutes in traffic):
C. Los Angeles, California
1. Oh! The freeways and cloverleafs!
2. Lots of lights! Lots of cars!
3. Oh! The silicone breast implants!
4. Lots of strip clubs and stars!
5. Don’t turn down the wrong roads.
6. Never trust a valet.
7. Careful snorting while driving.
8. Buy a hands-free coke tray!
9. Party at clubs with ridiculous covers.
10. Drive like you’ve got the heart of a beast!
11. Avoid being on a reality show.
12. Onward, the desert awaits to the east.
792 miles later (about 12 hours, 19 minutes):
D. Albuquerque, New Mexico
1. Take that left turn.
2. (You know that you want to!)
3. Make fun of the town’s name.
4. Just where no one can hear you.
5. It’s a good place for business.
6. And for jobs (Forbes says so).
7. But they drive like they have
8. Nowhere special to go.
9. So just drink some peyote.
10. View the great color fountain!
11. See hot air balloon fiestas.
12. Then head on up the mountain!
449 miles (about 7 hours, 11 minutes):
E. Denver, Colorado
1. Celebrate that you’re here!
2. Your adventure is done.
3. Drink beer and get stoned.
4. Pretend you’re in Oregon!
5. It’s the Mile High City.
6. Snow’s a beautiful scene!
7. Reflect on your adventure.
8. All the places you’ve been!
9. You’ve had traffic and parking.
10. Yes, at times you were vexed.
11. But it’s your destination!
12. Where will you go next?
By the time the sky began to lighten to gray, Abbie had finished painting a pentagram that encompassed the entire interior of her car. She had painted through the night using clear nail polish and lighting her way with a miniature flashlight gripped between her teeth.
When she crawled out the door and straightened up, finally stretching her cramped back muscles, it felt like someone was prying her apart with a crowbar. Abbie’s eyes watered, but she kept her groan fairly quiet.
Compared to gathering the ingredients for the invocation and painting the pentagram, the actual process of calling the demon was anticlimactic and easy. The object of the summoning was just a weak little Dolor Culi (a name that she was told translated roughly to “pain in the ass”). Abbie reached into the back seat of the car, set the materials on fire on top of an old cookie sheet, stepped away, and recited the Latin she’d memorized.
The car filled with a dull green smoke, which stank like a burning outhouse. In the depths of the roiling cloud, two bulging red eyes peered out balefully, though as the smoke dissapated they went invisible with the rest of the demon, just like the books said.
Abbie and her car stood in the driveway of a small, yellow house that badly needed repainting. Now she walked to the front door and knocked on it. She had to keep knocking for several minutes before Danny’s new girlfriend Britney–the one he’d been cheating with–opened up, squinting and wearing an oversized Pokemon t-shirt. Britney grimaced when she saw Abbie, but pulled the door open and walked toward the back of the house, shouting “Danny! It’s your ex.”
Danny emerged from the bedroom bleary-eyed, wearing only his beloved Soviet Russia boxer shorts. Abbie tossed him the keys. He grabbed for them belatedly, still befuddled by sleep, and missed. The keys hit the carpet with a muffled jangling sound.
“Hope you enjoy my car,” Abbie said.
Danny smiled. “I will enjoy my car,” he said.
“That I paid for.”
He shrugged theatrically. “Title’s in my name. Next time you should be smarter.”
“From your mouth to God’s ear,” Abbie said, and left.
As she walked off toward the bus stop, she waved to the Dolor Culi. She had no way of telling whether or not it waved back.