But this is not Mio. Not yet.
This is the utopia of utter devastation known as Detroit, Michigan.
From high above—below the clouds, but higher than the smog—observe the Great City: a patchwork of urban farms, city slickers on horseback, trashcan fires warming dirt-caked hands, high-rise hotels, and empty ballparks. It used to be the City. Some call it Hockey Town. Others—for reasons beyond the comprehension of the world’s greatest dendrologists—call it the City of Trees. Its stubborn inhabitants still call it Motor City, but the engine is rusted through and the pistons no longer fire.
A few people claimed places like Detroit were dead, dying, old news, and forgotten. They were wrong; they’d never met The Followers of Not, who were more alive than anyone else. Overlooked, sure. They smelled like moldy cheese and bleach, but they were alive.
Their continued existence relied on a three key factors—puzzle pieces aligned in perfect harmony to provide them a habitable ecosystem. When these aligned, the Followers thrived. If broken into their original pieces, the whole delicate system would collapse.
Step one, for health reasons, involved mass quantities of booze and drugs housed close enough where they could haul their caches back to their hideout.
But people, even the Followers, couldn’t survive on artificial dopamine alone. Luckily, in accordance with step two, the alleyways and abandoned hovels of Detroit supplied plenty of plump rats and lame-winged carrier pigeons to fuel their exploits.
Step three, they needed faith. Without faith, the rest was meaningless.
As it turned out, the Followers of Not weren’t so different from everybody else. Booze, shelter, and faith. Sustenance, home, and purpose.
While they had those threefold things, they’d be okay. The fact they worshipped the Devil incarnate and Death in all her glory was neither here nor there. No one was ever perfect, after all.
Upon arrival to Detroit, they found the glory of all three in appropriate abundance. Their journey long, their travels arduous, they’d Arrived. What a place to settle!
With their niche in the world carved, they were free to pretend they had it all figured out. They’d pretended for so long they became their own fantasies. No one—themselves included—remembered who the Followers of Not used to be. Doctors? Teachers? Sons and daughters, though human-spawn was a stretch. Faith only went so far; few had active enough imaginations to believe that.
This sect, a trinity of three of the most devout Followers in recent history, included “Rascally” Randy, “Randy” Wilson—confusing, but well-suited to their personalities—and “Repugnant” Rachel.
Rascally Randy, the self-declared, undisputed Champion of Saboteur, Cunning Artifices, and Room-clearing Flatulence—the latter of which was not included in his official title, rather added as a footnote in the book of his supreme awesomeness—considered himself quite enigmatic. He also played the part of leader for the small, rogue group. They looked up to him for one reason or another: They didn’t dare stand downwind for fear of malodorous demise, and, at seven-feet-tall, he happened to tower over them. So, they had no other choice.
Randy Wilson was second-in-command by default because (as was common knowledge) you couldn’t trust women with leadership roles in devil-worshipping cults. They tended to do too good of a job and, in the end, skewed the core values of the group. As a result, he was the exact opposite of his “superior.” Short, stumpy, well-kempt, and stupid, he liked what he liked and pursued it with single-minded brutishness. He’d earned his nickname—which was not, in fact, the same semantically as Randy’s first name, but much more sinister. He rose every night to ask the world how it planned to get him laid, and every night the world responded by giving him the finger. Not a beast to scoff at, the “Tragedy of Randy Wilson” wrote itself into obscurity before he even found a pen to draft it.
Repugnant Rachel, the last Follower of Not—and, in the boys’ eyes, the least—was childishly named because of her constant refusal of Wilson’s many advances. She got the short end of the bargain. In Wilson’s mind, she only denied his advances because she was “a filthy, raging lesbian with irreparable mental issues.”(1) In reality, she was the only one in the ragtag group with her head screwed on even remotely straight. She wasn’t repugnant at all. She was dignified. Several cuts above the rest.
She had goals, dreams beyond the Not. She had Hope, a dangerous thing for someone in her unfortunate position. Forget that she combed her hair with pinecones, using excess sap to fix the split ends, and foraged for their food on her knees in Detroit’s numerous gutters. She did what she must for her companions, despite their delusional superiority. Without her urban resourcefulness, the Followers of Not would’ve perished long before they had a chance to give her a nickname.
They sat around a dumpster fire in the bowels of the abandoned Michigan Central, eating a light “breakfast.”
Randy licked the remnants of a discarded, moldy McFlurry cup and belched. His fondness for the gelatinous, slightly hazardous foodstuffs stuck at the bottom of such items made the exhausting effort of extraction worthwhile. Broken skylights on the vaulted ceiling above let pale, dawn light in, illuminating his face in all the wrong places as he chomped a moldy peanut.
“Not bad, really. But if someone had caught that big, furry bastard earlier, we’d be eatin’ like bloody kings.”
Rachel lowered her head. She’d failed. Again. It didn’t happen often. When it did, Randy shamed her to tears for her shortcomings.
“Sorry.” She picked a scab off her forearm.
Wilson watched her like a cat in heat while he waited for the boss to say something important; Randy always said something “important” if you gave him long enough.
Right on cue, he said, “Well then…” He stopped and, after performing a series of yawns and stretches like a malnourished contortionist, he got right down to business. “We all know what needs done.”
“We do?” Rachel asked.
“Yes, we do.”
“I know what I want to do.” Wilson sidled closer to the woman he refused to let get away.
Rachel elbowed him in the gut, and he slid as far as the tethers of his hormones would allow.
Randy laughed, his own gut twisting as his slender body writhed with amusement. “I knew I kept you all around for a reason. Remind me to remember that next time you disappoint me.”
After recovery, Wilson said, “What exactly is it that we need to do…er, sir.”
“They need to be coaxed—courted, one might venture—with a fun-spirited sacrifice. Or serenaded with a throaty, Gregorian chant of sorts.” Randy rattled his Adam’s apple and gurgled. “That oughta do it.”
“We should draw some pentagrams. Or burn some candles.”
“Hum a hymn or two.”
“Can we draw the pentagrams with Wilson’s blood?”
Randy glared at Rachel. Geometry had never been his best subject, but he was certain a stop sign was the last thing they needed. If anything, they needed a go sign. He picked gum off the bottom of his shoe, popped it in his mouth, and asked, “What shape means go?”
The Followers ignored him. Brilliant questions deserved brilliant responses.
“Where we supposed to do these things? It’s not like we runneth over with options here.” Wilson spread his arms to draw attention to their current circumstances. Walking on thin ice always cooled him off.
“There aren’t go signs; there’d just be no sign to begin with. You don’t see a thousand signs a mile down the highway telling you ‘It’s okay, keep it up kid. You’re doing great’—do ya?”
Randy considered this. He wasn’t in the habit of considering the advice of underlings, especially Rachel, but this made sense. While he never understood much of what people said to him, he’d gotten good at faking cognizance, which gave him a chance to process his own feeble thoughts one independent clause at a time.
To establish dominance, he made the other Followers squirm. He could pee on them or hump their leg to convey the same message, but that was too messy. Uncomfortable Silence worked better.
When he was good and ready, Randy said, “It doesn’t matter where, Wilson. They’re everywhere and nowhere. It’s our jobs—nay, our purpose—to find them.” He kicked over a crate and stood on it as he spoke. “The Followers of Not go wherever we’re needed. When darkness whispers, we answer. We follow the shadows to find the light. If it takes a year, a decade, or even lifetime, we’ll keep on this unrighteous path. Our masters will bless us with their presence when they deem us worthy. Not a moment sooner.”
“Patience, then.” Wilson rolled his eyes. He’d heard it all before. Still, he liked Michigan Central; he liked Rachel. One day, with enough coercion, she might like him back. Or at least tolerate him. “If we must wait it out, so be it. At least we have each other.”
“And leftover cup sludge,” Randy added.
“Three months!” Rachel tossed her red hair and scratched at her lice. “Three months we’ve been here eating rats and sleeping on old newspapers. I used a dead raccoon as a pillow last night. It woke up halfway through, puked on me, and bit my hand. I probably have rabies now, for Not’s sake. You want me to just…wait?”
She kicked the crate out from under Randy, flourished, and swatted the air. This was unfortunate for her old pillow, who had recently scurried back for round two. She caught it square in the ribs and sent it flying. It soared across the station and landed with a zap on the still-active tracks.
“Whoops.” She clapped her hands over her mouth.
“Lunch is served.” Randy picked himself off the ground. “For that insubordination, Rachel, you get to go peel it off. Better hurry, it’s getting toasty.”
“But I need a real meal. One that doesn’t squeak before I bite into it.”
Randy glanced at the charred remains of the rodent. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about any squealing this time.”
“You seem cranky,” Wilson offered, taking the opportunity to scoot closer to her. “A nice shoulder massage might—”
Rachel brandished a jagged piece of glass. “Touch me one more time, man, and I swear to Not I’ll slice you up and have you for lunch. Capeesh?”
Arms raised, Wilson backed away, nodding. “Don’t blame me for trying.”
“We’ll eat like kings and queens when they come. Those of us who remain gracious, at least. You, you’ll be eating out of the gutter unless you shape up. One of these days, as you’re cutting into steak at a fancy, hoity-toity downtown steakhouse—one with artisan ice cubes and thirty varieties of flan—you’ll wake up and realize we’re gone. You’ll be eating a nice candlelit meal, wiping your face with a cloth napkin, and wishing you woulda stayed true to the Not.”
Rachel smiled. She liked cloth napkins. They held in juices better than paper ones. Like the cast iron pan her grandmother used to cook with—the one only washed clean when Hell froze over—a good cloth napkin added delicate yet refined flavors to any meal.
Randy despised her obvious joy. He wouldn’t allow it. “Clean cloth napkins. Silken ones with gold embroidery and a monogram reminding you of your posh, seafaring family lineage.”
She gagged. It was too much to stomach. “You’ve gone too far, Randy.”
Suddenly, before the argument could escalate any further, the whole station quaked. They braced themselves against whatever was closest. Chunks of glass fell from the ceiling, popping like water balloons with tacks in them as they hit the floor. A chunk of concrete broke loose and smacked Wilson on the head. He floundered before buckling at the knees.
All life inside Michigan Central, save the three Followers of Not, hightailed it for the exit. Those that couldn’t find the doors threw themselves ritualistically onto the tracks.
“Is that…a train?”
“Don’t be an idiot. These tracks haven’t run in months.”
“Maybe it’s them,” Rachel suggested.
A sound like scraping ice, nails on a chalkboard, open-mouthed chewing, and a dozen colicky babies all thrown together and agitated with a stick cut Randy off before he could interject. It rushed them, developing a life of its own—this noise had form—and kicked them square in the chops.
Then, it stopped, and silence reigned.
Randy wheezed. “It is them. They’re finally here.”
Wilson, who’d distracted himself from terror by sucking his thumb behind their fire barrel, peeked out.
“Oh my goodness,” Rachel said. “How does my hair look? Oh my, oh my, oh my. I’m not ready for this. I need more time!”
“Urgggh,” Wilson said, still hidden. “What a horrible time to need a dump!” Why had he said that out loud? Had he no dignity left?
A sharp pang shot through his body. He clenched his chest with one hand and his stomach with the other. The pain inside of him was like a woodpecker tearing its way out of his body. He doubled over, teeth clenched and eyes bulging. Sweat formed in swaths along his forehead. Whatever was playing power chords on his organs was coming out, one way or another.
Rachel rushed to his aid and lifted him to his knees. Despite his perversions, he was a Follower of Not. That made him family, and you didn’t choose family.
Randy was there before she stood Wilson up. He wrenched her away from Wilson and slapped her across the face.
“It’s supposed to happen this way. Don’t you get it? They’re here. If they want Wilson dead, they can have him. If they give him diarrhea, even better.”
Wilson continued to writhe in agony. Michigan Central shook and moaned. The steel beams above them bent like paper clips. A meteor shower of glass and concrete fell all around them.
“He’s going to die,” she said. “We have to do something.”
“He’s been chosen,” Randy snapped. “He’s to be their vessel. I’d be honored if I were in his place. Now silence, woman. Let them come in discord.”
The chaos ended like it had never begun. Stillness blanketed the interior of the station, leaving the Followers of Not in suspense.
Wilson rocked, uneasy on weak legs, pale and sweaty, murmuring something incoherent about rats and second helpings. His stomach gurgled and his muscles ached, but he was nonetheless alive.
“Must have been something you ate,” Randy said, stating the obvious.
“I told ya not to cook it so damn well-done. Rat meat’s always better raw. This is culinary basics, ya know?”
“Doy,” Randy added, helpfully.
Footsteps approached. Randy checked on his companions, both present and accounted for, then focused on the noise. There was no other explanation at this point; no mortal dared intrude on the Follower’s territory. They were actually coming. He quivered with anticipation.
A shadow rounded the corner, stretching and distorting as it got closer, before snapping to its original, amorphous state. It became a man, shapely and bald, dressed as if ready to go fly fishing in the King’s moat. He faded in and out as he transitioned into being.
Riding a primal twinge of manliness, Wilson stepped between the newcomer and Rachel. He held her behind him with one arm and puffed out his stomach. He’d have done the same with his chest, but Wilson had been born with a rare condition much worse than pigeon chest: egg belly. Or, as it was known in certain scientific circles, Humpty-Dumpty Syndrome. His biggest fall? Too much high-cholesterol garbage.
“Stay back, foul beast. Not one step closer,” he said.
Randy moved forward to greet the man. “Please excuse my colleague. Can we be of assistance, m’lord?” He bowed low, touching his toes with his pointy nose. “We are but humble servants, ready to do thy bidding.”
“Like Hell we are,” Wilson said.
“That’s a kind offer.” The stranger waved off Wilson’s outburst with a faint smirk. “I think I’ll take you up on it.”
He phased out of existence, reappearing within kissing distance of the fattest member of the Not. His outfit changed, too, transitioning in cascading pixels to a black tuxedo and a red, feathered fedora.(2)
“Hm. That never works first try. Hoped it would this time.” He shrugged. “You were so ready for it, too. Damn. What’s your name, my child?”
“Wilson, eh? Great English name. How faux-Medieval of you. Did you know your ancestors were kings?” Wilson shook his head. “And look at you. What a shame…”
“Who do you think you are, mister?” Rachel interjected for the speechless and star-struck Wilson. She had to be certain; she needed to hear it from the Devil, himself.
“I’m…” He stopped to ponder. “Call me Stan. And I am everything, young lady. Everything and more.”
Rachel hid behind Wilson, white knuckling the loose, pungent tatters of his button-down.
Randy fell to his knees with tears streaked across his face, chanting and bowing in prayer. He paid no attention to what happened next.
Stan smiled, his breath reeking of sulfur and heat emanating from his eyes. Gently, almost courteously, he laid a hand on Wilson’s shoulder. In an archaic, serpentine tongue, he whispered the answer to the meaning of life in Wilson’s ear. Like a lightning bolt on a clear day, Stan plunged an ethereal dagger into Wilson’s stomach, slid it up through his heart, and let him go. He sighed, having taken no pleasure in the deed.
Wilson fell like a sack of dead perverts. Stan squatted by him and brought Wilson’s agonized face to meet his own.
“Shh, shh, shh,” he said. “It’s okay, now. You’re free. Easy, there you go. I’m sorry we had to go through this charade a second time. You should’ve been dead upon our arrival. I’ll work on that next time, just for you.”
Wilson gagged, sputtering blood onto the concrete. He gasped for air but found little. What he took in escaped from his open torso. Blind, he pawed towards his killer, trying to find a handhold—something to grab and bring the villain down to his level.
He died without retribution.
Wilson lay on the ground, twisted and motionless. However, his shadow danced as if it were a mime freeing itself from an invisible box. After jerking and snapping, it broke away and stood—an exact figure of the man. It curtsied to Stan, who bowed. Then, they did a celebratory jig together before embracing for a long, passionate kiss.
Rachel looked away. What was happening, if it was real, disturbed her far too much to process. Nothing made any sense. This wasn’t at all how she envisioned their arrival.
“You’ve been a doll,” Stan said to Wilson’s shadow, before banishing it from this mortal plane. In its stead, a beautiful young woman with long black hair and pale cheeks appeared. “So happy to see you, apple of my eye.”(3)
“Glad to be here, dark of my night.(4) But did you have to do that?” She turned to the Followers. “I apologize, he’s always been one for theatrics. We’re working on it, I assure you.”
“Ah, but theatrics are the only way to exist. We can’t be here if we can’t break through mundanity. I thought I told you that, dear.”
“You did. I just didn’t think it would be so messy.”
“Ah, my apologies. I suppose I could have been a bit more forthright with some of the finer details. None as fine as you, of course.”
“Oh, stop it, you.”
“Ahem,” Randy said.
Randy forgot everything he’d planned on saying. He was unworthy, standing with his masters in the flesh. Both of them! In all honesty, he never expected to meet either one. How had he gotten so lucky? What had he done to earn their favor?
“Ah, yes. This is my dear wife, Anaya. Perhaps you’ve met her before?” Stan said, seeing the man’s dumbfounded expression and the drool pooling at the corner of his lips.
“Charmed.” Anaya kissed the space around Randy’s cheeks. His skin sizzled.
He nearly passed out, growing red in the face and shrinking to about three-feet-tall. Nothing prepared him for this. Pursuit alone had kept him a Follower for most of his life, but he hadn’t worked out what to do when he arrived at his final destination.
“These humans look like hell,” Stan said, growing weary of the silence.
“No, you look like Hell, honey.”
He put his arm around his wife, smooching her on the nose. “I believe that’s the kindest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
They hooked arms and turned to leave, but Anaya spun around to Randy.
“Ever been to Jamaica?” He shook his head. “What about Cancun? I hear it’s nice this time of year.”
Randy mumbled, “Too hot, madam. Always been a snow dog myself.”
Stan, tapping his foot, harrumphed. “See, I told you. Too hot. I’m ready for a break from fire. Michigan is the perfect place, you’ll see.”
She shrugged, gave a cute little groan, and tapped Randy on the neck. He buckled at the knees and fell down dead.
“At least we won’t have to deal with all those tourists,” she said, focusing on the bright side. “Just no more work, okay? The office stays at the office. You said so yourself.”
“Deal,” Stan said. “Why’d you do him in, though?”
“He was begging for it.”
“One more thing, dear.”
“We need a car with a drop-top. It’s been too long since I’ve felt the wind through my hair.”
Their conversation trailed off as they walked away, leaving Rachel all by her lonesome.
She cowered and rocked, cradled in her own warmth, wishing away the events of the last few minutes. If she wished hard enough, if she kept her faith, Rachel might erase the loss of the two people closest to anything resembling family. If not, maybe she’d just wither away.
She didn’t want to face the harsh realities of the world alone, but she had to. She couldn’t be done yet. There was so much she hadn’t seen.
But first, there was a raccoon to prepare. One couldn’t answer the call to adventure on an empty stomach.