Chapter 1

The cruel August sun bore down on me as I made my way along Hartnell Avenue, wondering why I was still in Redding. Things had changed so much over the last few months, shops had closed while others popped up to replace them, a constant cycle of failure. For the unemployed, it gave a sliver of hope before reality set in. It didn’t matter if it was a job posting on Craigslist or a listing in the local paper, once you showed up it was already filled.

They were entry level positions, things that even a trained monkey could do, and yet there would be 500 applicants for every opening, if not more. Suffice it to say, you were always too late. Overwhelmed with the flood of applicants the manager would choose one of the first people through the door.

It was infuriating. If they were nice, they’d hold onto your resume, tucking it away in some drawer that no one would ever look in again. If they didn’t see you as a fit you’d wind up in the trash. They didn’t really care about you, they only wanted to know what you could do for them.

I wasted the entire morning going from one place to the next, hoping for something. All I needed was a chance, but the responses were always the same. No one wanted some sixteen-year-old dropout on their payroll. No experience, no aspirations, that’s how they saw me.

“Come back once you finished school,” they’d say. Like it was that easy. Not everyone had that luxury, but they only heard what they wanted. The worst part was when they’d offer me something as I left. To them, it was just a drink, maybe some food, but to me, it was a handout. Pride sucks, and I probably have too much of it, but it’s one of the few things I get from my dad. I’ve learned a lot from his mistakes. Sometimes you have to let go of your ego to survive, and I wasn’t stupid enough to turn down food.

Sacrifice, selflessness, they were a part of Redding. It didn’t matter who you were, if someone had the ability to help, they’d go out of their way to do so. When I first got here, I thought it was weird how far people were willing to go for someone they didn’t even know, but time and again they surprised me. Sure, there were jerks, but there are douche canoes everywhere.

I keep a list of the handouts. Food, clothing, it didn’t matter, I didn’t want to owe anyone. Once I got the chance I’d pay them back, no matter how small the act of kindness. They had helped me, and I’d make sure to pay it forward once I balanced my debts. Still, it’d be so much simpler if someone would just give me a shot.

No matter how frustrating it was, I couldn’t really blame them. My jeans, smeared with dirt and blood, were ripped to shreds, barely hanging on. The shirt I wore, proudly stating that I was with stupid, the arrow pointing up at my grubby face, had seen better days. Describing it as ragged would be a kindness. Worst of all was my mop of unruly blonde hair, which was so greasy they could probably wring it out and deep fry my lunch.

Stopping at the intersection, waiting for the torrent of cars to storm by, I couldn’t help but notice the cruisers parked across the street. I’ve never been a fan of the cops, it comes with the territory when you’re a screw-up, but I tried not to hold anything against them. It was their job, and even when I was on the wrong side of things, I knew how important it was.

Honestly, I think, at least to a certain extent, the cops felt the same way. It wasn’t rocket science, even when people screwed up in such an extraordinary fashion, they knew they were putting something on the line when they made those choices. The cops just have a different role in how things play out.

The crosswalk began to shriek, signaling that it was “safe” to cross. It wasn’t a good idea to be caught in the middle of the street, no matter how nice people were. Most of the time they were still in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. They’d glare at you, non-verbally threatening you to get out of the way. It was California, some things were the same no matter where you were.

After pulling the hood up on my sweatshirt, I slipped my hands into the pockets. It was hot, but I couldn’t move around outside without it. Most people would call me weird, snickering behind my back, they might even think I was insane, but that’s the impression I wanted to give them. It wasn’t the greatest idea I’ve ever had, I wasn’t even the first to do it, but it was an unspoken rule. If there was ever anyone crazy enough to wear a nasty navy zip-up hoody while exposed to the 100-degree heat that tortured Redding, it was probably best to leave them alone.

It helped that I had a secret that made it all worthwhile, a cold spot I could focus on in my pocket. It wasn’t anything special, an off-brand cola the attendant at the gas station had given me. I wanted a job, they gave me diabetes. To them it was the nice thing to do, to me it was a consolation prize, an apology that I didn’t really deserve. The attendant felt bad, sending me away like that. It was a pity soda, but a treasure for me nonetheless, one that I would savor when I got the chance.

Honestly, the sugary beverage made everything worth it. Sure, I had failed to get a job, or to get anyone to take me seriously, but between the dollar menu burger I was gifted from the manager of the local Cream King, and the soda, I had something to look forward to once I crashed for the night. A bright spot in an overall crappy day.

Stepping onto the curb, I could hear people screaming inside the drugstore, men shouting orders, it was obvious that the cops had shown up in force for a reason. A crowd was forming as a handful of Redding’s finest dragged some weird looking dudes out to the parking lot. As the onlookers pushed in, their phones out, hoping to catch anything that could make them e-famous, the cops tried to keep the faces of perps out of view.

The men cursed loudly at the officers, their homespun, brown robes opening as they tried to struggle free, exposing the tattooed and emaciated bodies that were hidden beneath. Aside from the odd symbols that had been stitched into their ragged clothing, matching the incomprehensible ink they were sporting, they just seemed like your everyday tweaker. I didn’t have anything against tattoos, I actually find some to be fairly nice, not that I could get one myself, but I’ve never seen anything like this.

Devil worshippers, the notion hit me as I studied them. Even in Redding, you could find people that devoted themselves to the more nefarious things, but I’ve never seen anyone outwardly displaying their affiliation. That was something you’d practiced in private, you didn’t want anyone to know what you were doing. Obviously, whatever dark power they had been drawing upon wasn’t enough, the four men had been subdued by the RPD.

Freezing mid-step, I watched in morbid fascination as one of the men broke free, the robe torn from his body as he assaulted the officers. Personally, I would have run, but I couldn’t help but root for the guy, he was the underdog after all. It was genius really, even as he moved towards the cops no one wanted to touch him. It turns out the guy had decided to go commando for this one.

As the escapee tried his best to go berzerk, his companions weren’t having the same luck. All it took was two cops to suppress the rest of them, their pretty new bracelets stopping them from adding to the chaos. You could see it in their eyes, though, they wanted a beating, even if the cops weren’t willing to give it to them.

Sure, he was an idiot, all this tantrum bought him was more time in county, but you had to give the man some credit. Not many people could get wasted enough to fight naked and not care that people were filming it.

Angling around the crowd, I tried to get a better look at the tattoos, hoping that I wouldn’t see anything that would require years of alcohol abuse to forget. They were new, infected, and they covered every inch of him. It wasn’t just ink. Carved into his skin were demonic symbols that you’d find on a cd cover, nothing that could actually call on the dark lord to save your ass while fighting the cops naked.

The occult had always been a part of Redding. Being a rural community in California meant that religion had seeped into the foundation of the city, but while one belief system dominated the others it did not mean they had quietly gone off into the night, and there were many that could be seen as evil. When people lose faith, and their prayers bring nothing but disappointment, they search for something else to believe in. The most desperate turn to the cults that cropped up every once in a while before fading into obscurity. They were an unspoken scourge on the community, an unholy underground that no one wished to tread upon, unless they had lost all hope. No matter how hard the police or other organizations tried, these groups were never stomped out, they’d fester for a while before coming back, haunting those that had gone against them.

Sure, it sounded cool. Summoning demons in the dead of night, colluding with dark forces in hopes of achieving your wildest dreams, but nothing ever came from it. I’m certain there were people that claimed to have experienced something, influenced by whatever their friends had slipped them, but there was never anything concrete. No, the only sign of them were the butchered cows that showed up every now and then, the remnants of a ritual sacrifice meant to call upon some pagan god.

“Hey!” I’d wandered in a bit too deep, catching the attention of one of the SAT officers, privatized cops. He was a younger guy, maybe mid-twenties, and now rushing towards me. The scuffle was already over, the officers decided to just taze the naked assailant. It wasn’t pretty watching him flounder on the ground, but that didn’t stop people from recording it.

“What are you doing?” He was defensive, his eyes searching for a cell phone, a video camera, something that would lead to this embarrassment ending up on Youtube and the nightly news.

“Nothing man.” I held my hands up as I stepped back, moving through the growing crowd without sparing the cultists a second thought. I had already gotten enough entertainment for the day, I didn’t need dinner and a movie with SAT to finish off my night.

“That’s right.” Officer Friendly said. The best name I could come up for him, since he was oh so delightful.

Protect and serve, I thought, slipping under the awning of the bus stop as I waited for my ride. While Hartnell had been a bust there were still some other places I could try. Maybe someone else had overlooked something, and I’d be the lucky idiot that stumbled into a decent job for once.

Fumbling with the handful of bills I had in my pocket, I ignored the parade of cruisers leaving the drugstore, my eyes focused entirely on the behemoth that lazily rolled its way towards me.

The bus was never on time, the schedule only seemed to be a suggestion to the drivers, but it was air conditioned, and the only public transportation we had in Redding. Well, unless I called one of the larger churches to help me out. They’d send someone to give me a ride in a nondescript car, probably toss in some food, and I’d make it to my destination, at the expense of my patience.

A sky-blue Chevy pulled out in front of the bus, causing it to swerve to prevent an accident. Even through the tinted windows, I could make out the aged bus driver, shaking his head at the selfish prick that had rushed off. The hydraulics hissed as the bus lowered down to the street, the door sliding open, releasing bliss-inducing chilled air. Climbing in, I tried to slip the two dollars into the toll booth at the top of the stairs, only to be blocked by the driver’s hand. He shook his head, motioning for me to take a seat.

Someone had overpaid. It wasn’t uncommon, someone would slip the driver a $20 when they came on board, hoping to help out whatever poor souls had to take the bus. I worked my way to the back, threading through the throngs of people that had risen to their feet, preparing to get off at the next stop. It wouldn’t take me long to make it to my destination, but I had plenty to mull over. I had another one for my list.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2