DON’T SHOP AT LOWE’S

This is a public service announcement: first, hit share. Everyone, share this. Everyone needs to know. You’ll find out why in a second, and it’s worth it trust me. All set? Good.

This is a bit of a departure for me, but it needed to be said: DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM LOWES. Not their products, not their appliances, and ESPECIALLY not their services. Now, I will explain why.

First, a little bit of backstory. Five years ago, my husband and I had good jobs with the state and we lived near Palestine, Texas. We had cause to buy a brand new washer and dryer, and we had just gotten our income tax. All of our little ducks were in a row to get an energy-efficient set, complete with the extended five-year warranty. So, that’s what we did.

Fast forward 4 1/2 years. Our fancy, high-tech washing machine, with all of it circuit boards and sensors, decided that it was through. Kaput. It began to quit cycling halfway through every load. It wouldn’t drain. It wouldn’t spin. We were forced to pull the heavy, saturated, musty-smelling clothes out of the dirty laundry water then drain the tank manually. That meant disconnecting the hose from the wall then siphoning out the nasty water ourselves. We did this twice before we realized that this was not a problem that was going to fix itself, and we had better call a repair man. But that was fine, because we had a few months left on our five year warranty.

Or, so we thought.

Did I mention that I pulled a muscle in my side lifting those soaking wet clothes we had to pull from the washer? Wet clothes are very heavy. Even with my husband’s help, I wrenched the muscle underneath my right arm pit so it felt like I snapped a rib. I had to go to the emergency room. I then spent the next three work days on the couch being electrocuted by a TENS unit, as it did its very best to unclench that pulled muscle. But I digress.

Knowing that we had bought the unit in 2014, and that our FIVE YEAR warrantee was good until 2019, my husband called Lowe’s to schedule a repair.

Lowes could not find any record of our purchase. They had a record of every single other thing we’ve ever bought there, even if it was just a single extension cord or batteries. But not the washer and dryer, and not the five year warranty. For some strange reason, they don’t use the model or the serial number to keep track of such things. They sort it based on your address and phone number at the time of purchase. Which, we provided to them, but they still could not find any record of our having bought that particular washer and dryer, much less the five year warranty, which was pretty much the same price as a third major appliance.

What could we do? We couldn’t prove that we had bought it there. We had lost the warranty and the receipt in the move so we were basically boned.

OK. Crap happens. Lesson learned. Hey, sometimes Life will throw you a curve ball. You’ve just got a learn how to roll and catch it. I began doing laundry at the laundry mat, to the tune of $40-$60 every week, until such time we could afford to get a replacement. We look for a cheap used one in the classifieds and on Facebook, but had no luck. It seems like every time we found one, some other poor soul bought it out from underneath us. We just had to suck it up, do laundry at the laundry mat, and wait for our next income tax return.

Curveball. Catch it. Keep rolling.

I know what you’re thinking. For $40-$60 a week, I could’ve made the payments on a new washer and dryer. You are correct, but you assume much. First, you assume that I have credit.

I don’t have bad credit. I have ZERO credit, which is worse. I am deeply opposed to borrowing money, preferring instead to pay cash for everything. I know that’s a strike against you in modern American culture, but it will actually save money in the long run, when one removes the finance charges and interest rates. This financial philosophy has served me well over the years, except when it doesn’t. This is one of those times when it doesn’t. My unwillingness to go into debt has left me with no credit to my name. In order to get a credit card, I’d need to get a secured credit card. Which, if I had $500 on me, I would’ve just gone and bought a brand new washer. Total catch-22, but whatever. That’s what I get for being poor.

2 1/2 months later, Lowes—yes, the same company that told us “they had no record of our purchase” in the first place—sent us a letter to inform us our warranty was set to expire in January. If we wanted to renew said warranty, we had only to pay $100 a month. For the next few months.

Basically, if we essentially paid for another washer, they’d extend the warranty on the washer they had no record of us buying the first place.

This was the break we had been waiting for. Letter in hand, my husband called Lowe’s to schedule a repair.

Lowe’s: but we don’t have a record of you buying that washer.

Mike: According to this letter, you do. *gives them policy number*

Lowe’s:…Oh, *that* washer.

One would think that would be the end of our story. Nay nay..

We were told that a technician would be in our area on Tuesday. My husband tried to call said technician and got his voicemail. My husband left a voicemail saying that the technician needed to call him back, so he could find out what time he would be in town and we could arrange for one of us to be there when he arrived.

He never called back. And, he never showed up.

The next day I called Lowe’s to find out what the heck was going on. According to the customer service representative I spoke to, the technician reported that he came to our house (he didn’t), and spoke to a tall man with dark hair and glasses (which describes absolutely no one we know). This stranger reported that we did not live there, so the technician marked our job as “complete“ and went about his day.

The customer service representative apologized profusely. He took the time to fill out the paperwork to hire a different repair service, who I was told would call us within three days to schedule a time to come out and take a look at our machine.

On day five with no word from anyone, I called Lowe’s back.

This time, I got a different customer service rep. This woman answered the phone with what could only be described as complete sarcasm. She would not listen when I tried to explain the situation to her. In fact, she was terse and dismissive. When I got irritated, she doubled down and got irritated right back. She informed me that, because it is the holidays, I will not be getting a repair before Dec. 31st.

Our warranty expires January 1. I think we can all see where this is going.

So, there you have it. This is how Lowe’s treats its customers. This is how Lowe’s honors it’s warrantees. And this is how their customer service representative’s treat their customers. This “mistake“ of Lowe’s has cost me and my family Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400-$600. That’s just in laundry mat fees. If I want to factor in the ER visit, it becomes much more expensive, but I will let that one slide. Unless I don’t feel like it later, in which case I will absolutely not let it slide.

$400-$600 DOLLARS. That is not a small amount of money to us. That is money that we could have used to buy food. Money we could have used to buy Christmas presents for our relatives and friends. That is money we could have used to pay for our daughter’s band trip coming up in the spring. We do not have so much disposable income that $40-$60 a week doesn’t hurt us financially. Every. Single. Time.

And this is why I have made it my goal to make as many people aware of this underhanded business dealing as I possibly can, so that they don’t experience the same nonsense.

Tell everyone.

Guess what; your kid doesn’t *have* to love you.

To paraphrase Cable from Deadpool 2, which I’ve seen at least a dozen times, but can’t recall the exact quote:

“People think they understand pain, but they have no concept of it, beyond their own worst experience.”

It’s the same when you declare to the world at large that you don’t love one, or both, of your parents.

When I tell people I haven’t spoken to my mother in 15 years, most react with horror and/or disbelief. Then, disgust.  I’ve broken one of the most basic social covenants, so there must be  something wrong with me. I must be some terrible, callous, incredibly selfish, and supremely hateful human being to even think such a thing, much less say it out loud.  There can be no other explanation, because that woman gave me life. I am a monster for cutting her out of mine.

Other people? They get it. This post isn’t for them.

Most of society has no real concept of what it’s like to have a truly bad parent. Annoying parent? Sure. Embarrassing parent? Of course. But truly piece of shit parents? No. They have no concept of it, beyond their own worst experience.  Ever been accused of something you didn’t do? Ever been grounded for longer than you thought was fair? Were you told no, you couldn’t go out on a school night?

I am sorry, but your childhood trauma is rated E for Everyone.

Now, to be fair, I realize that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent.  We are human, and as such, we make mistakes. Raising productive members of society is hard, and the standard is impossibly high. There are some good parents out there that screw up. Hell, they screw up big, and it doesn’t make them bad parents. But—and I can’t stress this strongly enough—there are some really bad parents out there. People so bad at being parents, they don’t even deserve the title.

The dirty details of why I cut my mother and her husband out of my life are no one’s business.  It should be enough to say that I have my reasons. Was my mother an alcoholic/drug addict that pimped me out for her next fix? No, to all of that.  Was she abusive? Not physically, sexually, mentally, or emotionally.  She was negligent, but name one teenager that wouldn’t delight in having a mother that didn’t care where they went, what they did, or who they were with. Right, you can’t.  Did we not get along growing up? Actually, my mother and I got along very well.  I left home the week after I turned 18 to get away from the toilet stain she married, not her. Again, the details aren’t important.

My mother is a pathological liar, and a thief.  She is completely selfish, and was never interested in being a mother or grandmother.  However, while she gave nothing, she demanded everything in return.

And that’s where the crux of the problem lies.  People seem to think that giving birth is all that’s required to claim the honor of being a parent. Yeah, that’s bull.  Exhibit A: all of the baby-mamas and baby-daddies running around out there that don’t pay child support or even go out of their way to see their kid.

Think about it. Some random idiot doesn’t like the way condoms feel, never calls, never writes, never shows even the slightest interest in their child, but they have the brass cajones to demand love and respect? How about no, jackass?

Exhibit B: the step parents that stepped the hell up when they didn’t have to. For them, I have nothing but respect.

Ted Bundy had a kid. John Wayne Gacy had kids. Fred and Mary West had a lot of kids.  These people were monsters, and have no right to demand anything from anyone.  Granted, these are extreme example, but where the line is drawn depends on who is drawing that line. Bad  Behavior is only acceptable as long as there are people around who are willing to accept it. Me? My willingness to accept unacceptable behavior came to a screeching halt a very long time ago.  I realized, maybe too late, that some people will take everything you have to give, then demand more. Once finished, once you’re completely empty and strip mined to the bare bones, they’ll toss you aside like used Kleenex and never give you a second thought.

And sometimes that person is your mother.

Do my kids love me? I think as much as any two people are capable of loving someone they’re forced to live with.  I know I annoy them. I embarrass them. They are overwhelmed by my ignorance at times. We argue.  If someone has figured out how to live with two teenagers without that being an issue, please, what’s your secret? Throw a bitch a bone.

The thing is, I don’t expect them to love me. They’re people, not my personal property.  They have thoughts, feelings,  inner lives, and interests as diverse as mine.  They are two human beings that did not exist before I came along, and wouldn’t exist without me, but here’s the thing about that…the decision to bring them into the world was mine.  I wanted to have kids.  They don’t “owe” me anything.

If they love me, it’s because I’ve earned it. Every day, since the day they were born, I’ve earned it. I am their biggest cheerleader, because I sincerely think they’re incredible at everything they try.  Sure, I can’t be trusted to be impartial where they’re concerned, but who cares? I don’t have to be impartial. I laugh at their jokes, because they’re funny.  I cook their dinner,  I do their laundry and—gods help me—I even pick up their room for them sometimes. My kids know I’d fight for them. They know I’d kill for them, because I 100% beyond the shadow of any doubt love them.  Not because it’s my job,  not because God commanded me to, but because I do. As people, not just because they’re my kids.

If they love me back, it’s because they genuinely love me. Now because they are obligated to by religion or society.  So, let’s take both equations out of it.  Disregard “honor thy father and mother.“  Consider, just for a moment, if that ancient adage wasn’t so deeply ingrained in societal consciousness…

Do you think your kids would still love you? Would you still love your parents ?

I asked myself that question.  The answer was no. It’s ugly, but the truth often is.

Where the hell have I been?

I’ll bet you thought this webpage had been abandoned, didn’t you? That’s extremely fair. I only ignored it for a year and a half, let the paid subscription lapse, and stopped writing altogether for roughly 15 months.  I can see were you might have gotten that impression.

Where have I been? The short answer is I finally got treatment for my anxiety disorder. The long answer; I started taking Paxil, then lost all interest in writing. I got a second low-paying job to supplement the income of my first low-paying job, then I sort of got lost in the endless grind of existence for a few months.

Until, Writer Kate stepped up, then I broke free.

So, hi. I’m Kati. I have social anxiety disorder, which causes occasional depression, and I choose not to treat it. That doesn’t make sense, you say. No, it doesn’t, but hello, anxiety disorder. I don’t want chemicals messing with my already messed up brain. Plus, the meds I’ve tried didn’t help much. Paxil is really just apathy in pill form, and Doxepin made me…a little violent and extremely hateful. Luckily, I didn’t take it long.

Which leaves treating myself with diet, exercise, and a can-do attitude. Unfortunately, I only have one of those things. My diet consists of whatever I can grab, not have to cook, and eat on the run. My exercise regimen is bust my ass at work and home, be constantly on the move, because if I stop at any point, I will fall asleep.

The thing is, I’m a lot luckier than most. I can function outside the home, even though it sucks and I have an awesome support system. I know a few people with the same disorder, or other equally scary mental illnesses, that can’t say the same.

So, what does that mean for my writing? While I was taking Paxil, I still had story ideas, absent any desire to actually write them down.  When I decided, essentially, that writing was more important than my mental health, the need to write came back. I’ve been working on Book 4 in the Watcher series for about 4 months now and I’m getting close to finishing the rough outline. Oh, it’s not a 600 page book, or anything. It’s just coming to me as easily as a Barbie doll giving birth to a 15 pound baby. And, writing another book absent an audience to actually read it is an exercise in pointlessness that pushed me onto the Paxil in the first place.

Who’s fault is that? Oh, it is 100% my fault. I wrote those books, published them, then never, ever looked at them again. The very idea of talking about my books with other people triggers a mini panic attack.  I don’t have a publisher or literary agent to back me up, so building an audience was supposed to be my job. I dropped the ball off a cliff.

So, here’s my dilemma. How do you build a social media presence when your mental predisposition is to keep EVERYONE at bay? It kind of feels like being on the bomb squad. If you’re successful, nothing happens. If you screw up, everything blows up in your face.

I am a wife, and I love being a wife. I’ve got 23 years experience at it. I used to do it professionally, until the economy tanked. I can talk to other people about being married, and I know I could give them good advice.

I am a mom. I absolutely love being a mom. I could talk to other people about what it’s like to raise kids in this world.

I am a writer. I could talk about writing all day,  and I like helping people with the stuff that they are writing. I offer a second pair of eyes and give honest feedback, which is essential for any artist.

I also have social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. It affects every aspect of my life. It drains me mentally, it affects my physical health, my ability to think clearly at times, and severely limits my social interactions. And so, this thing that I’ve kept hidden for the most part from everyone I know is the part of me that everyone needs to see.

There are a lot of people like me.  They’ve been made to feel ashamed. They’ve been told that there’s nothing really wrong with them. They get accused  of making it all up, or of acting out for attention.  So,  they’re the ones that need my help. Even if it’s just me changing the way I do things, to show them they’re not alone, and that it is possible to do the things that freak you out. Maybe, in the long run, doing those things will help you.

Because I’m broken, not useless.

 

 

We have liftoff!

Okay, Lady and Gentleman. Watcher in the Darkness: Book 3 is up and running. It took a little longer than I expected because they sent the proof copy to my old address (my bad), but my new book baby looks beautiful. You can buy the paperback and ebook version on Amazon. Or, if you prefer, there is a Nook ebook version available on Barnes and Noble.

Don’t forget, if you followed the story as it was being written here on the website, there is an epilogue-ish final chapter that sets up the next book that is exclusive to the ebook and printed copies. Just…thought I’d throw that out there.

Wow. Over a month, already?

It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since I updated the website. It feels like much, much longer.

Hi, everybody. I missed you. I just thought I’d poke my head in for a minute to give anyone that might be interested a status report.

So, what have I been up to? I’ve done three editing passes through the finished novel. Pathetic, I know, but such is life when you have a full time job, a full time family, and precious little time to work on anything else. I’m still not quite satisfied with the end product, but that’s nothing new. I don’t know if I speak for any other writer out there, but after I finish a book or story, I can barely stand to look at it again. Not necessarily because I hate it. It’s just that I’ll never stop trying to “fix” it, then I’d never get anything new written.

When will Imprisoned be released? I’m shooting for around the beginning of March. Luckily, I already bought my cover art, so at least I don’t have to worry about that.

What are my plans for the future? I have two more short stories rattling around my brain that I want to add to Haunted, Etc. I’ve also got a lot of cool ideas for the next Watcher book, so I need to get started on its outline.

In a nutshell, work, work, work, work, work. It never finishes. And until I simultaneously win the lottery and science comes up with the cure for sleep, my progress will be slow.

Ah. It appears that Createspace has finally finished uploading my interior file. Back to the grindstone. I hope all of you are having a blessed day.

So, now what?

I know what your wondering.

That’s it? That’s how the story ends?

Short answer; yes and no. There is an epilogue, but it will be exclusive to the ebook and print copies. It sets up the next book, of which there will definitely be a next book, but as far as this story is concerned, that’s all folks.

I want to thank everyone that’s made it this far. I want to thank everyone that took the time out of their busy lives to read my story. Words can’t express how much I appreciate the simple act of you being here. For me, even one like, post click, or share validates the countless hours I spent obsessing over this book. If I did it for money, I’d never write anything at all.

Ha-ha, just kidding! Or, am I?

Now, I begin the last few sweeps to prepare this bad boy for publication. I will definitely keep you all up to date on what’s happening on that front.  My head is buzzing with ideas for the next book, but I haven’t even started the outline for it yet.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays, whatever your preference, I hope your day rocks! Don’t forget to click on the like and share buttons below.

Or, if you’re here by accident, go back to the beginning and give this story a shot.

WitD3: Chapter 46 (The Final Chapter)

*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*

The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.

<<<Start at the beginning

Chapter 46

 

Thick clumps of blood shot into my lungs. I crawled forward, blind and choking, as I listened to Karen run down the stairs.

An invisible force lifted me then set me back on my feet. I flinched away from the cool, slender fingers that touched my cheeks, but the pain vanished. My vision cleared, and I saw the look of determination on Gwen’s face.

“I grow so tired of his games,” she said as she pulled the veil out of her hair. She let it drop to the floor, her dress brightening from black to fiery red. “After him.”

I didn’t need to be told to go after Karen. We ran toward the spiral staircase as I said, “Are you telling me this was part of Khalid’s plan?”

Close on my heels, Gwen fluttered like a flock of birds. “Perhaps not this exactly, but trust me. With Khalid, there is always a Plan B.”

The dirt on the floor was so thick that Karen may as well have been walking in the snow. Her footprints turned away from the broken window, toward the maze of metal racks. Gwen and I followed her into the shadows, my senses opening as the desperate need to catch up to her faded. There was no way in hell this wasn’t a trap.

As expected, Gwen and I reached a dead end, where the tracks stopped. I didn’t see so much as a scuff in the dirt in any direction. The cardboard boxes crammed onto the shelves left no place to hide. Yet, I stood in a cloud of musky jasmine. Had Khalid turned Karen invisible, or…

A disturbing thought occurred to me. “If he’s inside Karen, can he use her powers?” I said in a low voice.

Before Gwen could reply, my body locked. My jaw clamped shut, my joints and muscles seized, and I wondered to myself why I was such an idiot.

I heard laughter above, then a whoosh. Fire, bright and blinding in the darkness, swept across the boxes. Scorching heat raked down my throat as my skin bubbled. The vampire in me thrashed and screamed, but I couldn’t even blink as I roasted alive.

Without a word, Gwen exploded into a column of thick mist, gushing outward like a tidal wave. Karen’s influence faded as the wave sucked back in, solidifying into Gwen once again. I flexed my healed fingers, and the blackened cardboard wasn’t even smoking.

Gwen scowled upward, her hands fisted at her sides. I followed the path of her gaze, to find Karen standing on a steel rafter above us. “Your magic is stronger than mine, but my magic will always be stronger than hers,” Gwen said. “Enough of your theatrics, Khalid. Release the girl.”

Khalid glared at us through Karen’s eyes, then turned to sprint along the beam. She leapt onto one of the empty racks like a parkour master, then jumped again to the ground. In the blink of an eye, Karen vanished into the maze.

I shrugged off the last tugs of Karen’s domination as I started after her. “You have to get him out of her,” I said.

“If I could do that, I would’ve already.”

“You know, I’m beginning to think having a fairy godmother is a fucking scam.”

An unseen force yanked me into the air. The tips of my shoes scraped along the ground as the nothingness dragged me forward. Almost too late, I saw the pile of broken concrete and rebar. Pushed face-first toward the jagged spikes, I somehow managed to catch myself. I could sense Khalid’s irritation as the force holding me doubled in strength. The muscles in my arms screamed as my elbows began to shake.

Gwen passed her hand in front of the steel bars, and they curled inward like burning hair. I dropped to the ground then heard, “Why do you protect him?” There was nothing more offensive to me than hearing Khalid speak with Karen’s voice.

 “Thwarting you is the only motivation I will ever need,” Gwen said.

“Everything I have done—everything I have ever done—has been for you.”

Gwen laughed. “Selflessness is as foreign to your nature as is compassion, Khalid.”

The metal shelves made a deafening racket as they scraped toward us. Gwen pushed her arms out, then the racks toppled like dominoes. When the echoes of their crash faded, Khalid said, “So you shield a vampire just to spite me?” Clearly, this was the pettiest thing he’d ever heard. “You will never be free as long as he lives. My love, let me end this.”

“I have never been free, Khalid. Never once in my entire life. Since the day of my birth, I have existed only to serve others. My one true freedom has been to choose my master, and even this mule-blooded, half-breed vampire spawn is better than you.”

I wasn’t sure how to take that. “Thanks?”

Karen stepped out of the shadows. Khalid’s cruelty made her eyes hard and alien. When I took a step in her direction, Karen held up her hand. My body dropped to my knees, then bowed my head.

“I will not allow you to kill my master, Khalid,” Gwen said. “Before you argue, remember that you are the one that put me in this position.”

Khalid groaned, as though tired of having the same conversation. “A means to an end, dearest, nothing more. When he is dead, all will be as it was. Besides, do you believe your family will allow you to remain in thrall to a vampire?”

“You underestimate how much Xi hates you.”

I couldn’t move, but I could speak. “It’s too late anyway, demon.” The word felt awkward on my tongue. “You gave me her name, and now it’s mine. You can kill me, Khalid, but I’ve already made sure her name will pass on to my grandmother when I’m gone. I know Hlin will be able to think of a thousand uses for a fairy slave.”

I hoped Gwen sensed my bluff as she lifted her chin then drew her shoulders back.

Khalid glared, then Karen’s face went pale. Tears filled her eyes as she screamed, “Toby, just get out of here!”

Her terror and pain cut me to the core, as it always did. “Karen?”

“Please,” she said, sobbing. “He’ll kill you if you stay.”

Gwen laid her hand between my shoulders. “He won’t. Not again. I promise.”

My claws dug into my palms. “I won’t leave here without you.”

Karen cried out as her arm was wrenched behind her back. I heard the snap of straining tendons as she dropped to her knees. Karen’s free hand reached out to snatch up a shard of broken glass. Her head yanked back, then she pressed the makeshift weapon to her throat.

Khalid’s intense hatred returned to Karen’s face and voice. “Finish the ritual.”

Gwen held out her hand before I could respond. “Tobias, you don’t have to.”

The glass gouged into Karen’s soft skin. I watched as a rivulet of blood ran along the sharp edge to her hand. “I beg to differ,” Khalid said. “I have waited too long and have sacrificed too much for it all to have been in vain. I have given up everything to have your freedom, and I will have it. Now, half-breed, do this or I swear to every god in the multiverse that I will personally kill this incarnation, and every incarnation that is to follow. In their infancy, until the end of time. Slowly. Painfully, and I will make sure that this soul knows every time she dies that you are the reason why.”

I held up my hands in surrender. “Okay. Okay, you win. We’ll do this, but after it’s done, you have to swear to me that you will leave Karen alone forever.”

“Agreed.” Karen got to her feet, her arm still twisted between her shoulder blades. The glass remained at her throat as Khalid said, “Now march your worthless hide into that circle, and don’t you dare say a fucking word until it’s over.”

I kept my hands up. “Fine. I’ll do whatever you want. Just…don’t hurt her. Please.”

Khalid turned Karen’s body then marched it forward. Gwen and I fell into step behind them. The racks and debris moved aside, clearing a path for us.

I looked at Gwen out of the corner of my eye. Her head was bowed in sorrow. “I’m sorry,” I said. I don’t think I’ve ever meant an apology more than this one. “I’m so, so sorry. For everything.”

Gwen nodded, her dress darkening in despair. “I understand, Tobias. I forgive you.”

“He’ll never let you go. Not ever.”

“It appears not,” Gwen said with a sigh.

“If I could save you both, I would,” I said as we reached the spiral staircase.

We climbed, then Gwen looked at me at last. “Is that truly your wish?”

“Yes,” I said with a nod. “I’d give anything.”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “Finally.”

We stepped into the ritual area just in time to see Justine climbing through the hole in the roof. She looked back at us, cold and aloof, the chalice flashing in her hand.

Khalid stepped forward, rage breaking Karen’s voice as he screamed, “No!”

In that same instant, Gwen make a sweeping motion with her arms. The last thing I heard before time ground to a halt was Gwen’s voice. “Don’t waste this.”

Then…what I heard, what I saw…it’s very hard to describe. It was like I stood in the center of a photograph. I couldn’t move, but I could take in every detail. Every frozen flicker of the candleflames. Every ripple in Gwen’s dress. Every spark of light on the hovering dust, and the constant hum of Khalid’s fury.

The logical part of my brain reminded me that we were on a mission, damn it. “Karen?” I said. Well, sort of. I said it in my mind, but the voice in my head was so loud that it was like I’d spoken the words. “Karen, can you hear me?”

“Toby?” Karen’s voice came from the back of her head. Was this honest-to god-telepathy?

Again, I didn’t have time to marvel. “Thank the dear, sweet baby Jesus. Are you okay?” What the fuck, really? Of course, she wasn’t okay. “Where’s Khalid?

I sensed rather than heard Karen struggle. It was kind of like the rattle of chains without the clinking sound. “He’s still here. He still has me locked up inside myself, but it’s like… he’s stone? Toby, this hurts so much. He’s burning me from the inside out.”

I knew exactly what she meant. I’d been there. “I know it hurts. That’s why we have to get him out of you.”

“I can’t. He’s too strong.”

I ‘spoke’ louder to be heard above her rippling panic. “You’re strong. Yes, you can.”

“He’s in too deep. I won’t be able to get rid of him without turning myself inside out.”

“I know how you feel, Karen. Exorcism sucks, but we have to do everything we can.”

“He’ll just slip back in. When I’m weak, or when I’m asleep. Fuck, I’m so stupid!”

“Enough!” This was a dangerous spiral, one that would strip her of her power. “Use the exorcism incantation to put him into that statue.”

Karen was incredulous. “That won’t work.”

“You’ve done it before.”

“Against a pathetic, weak little piece of nothing. Khalid is… Besides, I can’t remember the incantation.”

“Wicked invader. Unwelcome presence. Hark and heed my spell. My will, indomitable. By your name, I call you. Khalid, you are expelled.” I got the feeling I’d surprised her. “Yeah, I remember. I remember everything you’ve ever said to me. You saved me, Karen. You’ve done nothing but save me since the day we met. Now, I need you to save yourself.” I heard a weird, jingling-grinding noise as the world began to speed back up. “I’m with you. Let’s do this.”

Time snapped back like elastic, then Gwen collapsed in a heap. Khalid turned Karen’s head to look back, then her eyes widened. He released the arm twisted behind her back as he lowered the blade of glass.

I lunged forward, tackling Karen around the waist. I push-carried her across the room, wincing when I slammed her against the black statue. I held her hands behind her back, my forearm pressed across her shoulders. Her lips peeled back as I forced her cheek against the hard obsidian.

 With Khalid preoccupied, Karen managed to fire off an incantation. “Wicked invader. Unwelcome presence. Hark and heed my spell! My will, indomitable. By your name, I call you. Khalid, you are expelled.”

Even as she spoke, Karen struggled in my grasp. “Keep going, Karen,” I said above Khalid’s furious growls. “Come on, together! Wicked invader. Unwelcome presence. Hark and heed my spell. My will, indomitable. By your name, I call you. Khalid, you are expelled.”

Khalid clenched Karen’s jaw, but she managed to force out about half the words. “I will stop her heart, half-breed,” he said with a snarl.

I didn’t know why he hadn’t already, so I had to act fast. My lips brushed Karen’s ear as I said, “Gwen never loved you.”

Khalid’s rage caught in his throat, then Karen blurted, “Wicked invader. Unwelcome presence. Hark and heed my spell. My will, indomitable. By your name, I call you. Khalid, you are expelled.” She cried out in pain when Khalid jerked within her.

I guess I’d struck a nerve, so I decided to dig my claws in. “Her family gave her to a grunt soldier like she didn’t even matter. Yeah, she’s sweet enough to try to make the best of a bad situation, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life under your thumb. Think about it. What has she done since she met you, except run away?”

The words began to come easier. “Wicked invader. Unwelcome presence. Hark and heed my spell. My will, indomitable. By your name, I call you. Khalid, you are expelled.”

As she chanted, I said, “Gwen knew that you would bring her nothing but misery. She would rather be a slave than your wife. Hell, she prefers me to you.”

Karen became heavier in my arms, as though her legs were giving out. Even so, her voice grew stronger. “Wicked invader. Unwelcome presence. Hark and heed my spell. My will, indomitable. By your name, I call you. Khalid, you are expelled.”

“Let Gwen go,” I said. “If you really love her, you’ll give her the only thing she obviously wants.”

Karen dragged in the breath to speak another incantation, but Khalid cut her off. “Enough.” His voice was sharp as Karen’s eyes turned toward Gwen.

Gwen laid where she had fallen. Her dress had faded to the same pale white as her skin. Wisps of her true form curled into the air.

A grim look swept over Karen’s face. “Tell her—” Khalid said, then Karen’s eyes squeezed shut. She twitched in my arms as oily black smoke began to billow out of her mouth and nose. The foul essence flowed into the statue, tiny cracks forming in the polished surface.

I eased Karen to the ground, patting her back as she coughed up the last of Khalid’s presence. Gwen began to stir, but I couldn’t go to her. My body was too weak with relief to leave Karen’s side.

Gwen’s green eyes cracked open, but took a moment to focus on us. “Is it done?” she said, her voice a whisper.

I hugged Karen close, then she wrapped her arms around my chest. Her face pressed into my neck, and I could smell tears. “Yes,” I said, without a trace of satisfaction. For some reason, this didn’t feel like victory.

Gwen breathed a heavy sigh as yet more mist drifted from her body. It was like she was evaporating. Was she dying? “I am glad that your friend is safe.”

“Thank you.” My voice thickened. “Thank you, so much. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

The corner of Gwen’s mouth turned up. “No. Not at all.” After a moment, she said, “Where is Khalid?”

I opened my mouth to tell her, but hesitated. “He imprisoned himself in the statue he made for you.”

Gwen’s eyes began to shine. Her body took on a soft glow that pulsed like a heartbeat. “Good. He would like that. I guess…I am yours now?”

I shook my head as I pulled Karen closer. “There’s nothing you can give me that I don’t already have. I don’t want you, Gwen. You’re free.”

Gwen’s tears sparkled like diamonds as they rolled into her hair. “To go where? And do what?”

“Anything. Anything you want.”

Gwen stared at me for a long moment. At last, she said, “Very well.”

I watched as Gwen dissolved. Her shimmering mist floated past us, soaking into the angel side of the statue. The cracks fused with a pale gleam then I heard a rumble. The stone shifted as the angel’s cold, hard lips pressed against those of the demon.

<<<Chapter 45, pt. 3

So, now what?>>>