You had to be a certain kind of person to own a business called Blood of Christ Wine, Beer, and Liquor, and we never quite figured out what kind of person that was. But Nick Fischer never told us to keep it down, and he sometimes helped settle arguments over rules, so he was good in our book.
Our arrangement was as such: on Friday nights, he let us play Magic: The Gathering in the small room next to the aisle of “holy spirits.” If we stayed that late, we would help him close up, and with Nick plus the five of us, it didn’t take long.
We wondered what would happen if someone tried to rob the place, and the consensus was that Nick would be fucked, since we were out of shape and nearsighted and only one of us knew any jiu-jitsu.
Nick kept a steady business, despite all the blasphemy. The Blood was right off State Route 515, in a lawless no man’s land wedged between dry counties, and he was open until 3 a.m. All kinds came to the Blood, and most kinds were welcome.
That one night we were busy playtesting Stephen’s new deck. He figured out a way to gain 26 life by turn three, and we were giddy with success.
We heard the mechanical wheeze of the automatic door opening out front, but we didn’t hear Nick greet anyone. Weird. He was usually pretty jolly with customers.
Humidity flooded in the open door. We could hear the yell of the cicadas outside. For a second, the fluorescents blinked.
We heard a raspy voice: “You’ve been careless, Nicholas Fischer.”
Now, it’s not every day you hear someone’s full Christian name used at 2:03 a.m. in a liquor store, so we put down our cards, cocked our eyebrows, and went to investigate. We felt no fear — after all, Stephen figured out a way to gain 26 life by turn three, and that’s the kind of accomplishment that extinguishes mortal terror.
You could take some big hits with that much life.
At first, we just saw the man’s back as he faced Nick. He was taller than any of us, and thin. He wore a neat, black blazer. His shoes were polished and his hair was coiffed. We saw Nick trembling, clutching the sides of the cash register as if it were his only tether to this earth.
When we saw that the intruder was real — made of flesh, not printed on cardboard — our heroism shattered. We thought, What if this guy has a gun?
The man turned to face us. People who looked like that would not wield something as uncouth as a gun. People who looked like that were usually video game mini-bosses armed with a sword cane and some henchmen.
It was a handsome face, but two bony protrusions like antlers attached to his jaw beneath his ears. They extended six inches past his face, curving slightly inward toward his mouth, and they had a waxy, red shine.
The man wore a blood-colored clerical collar. The man did not blink as he swept his eyes over us and laughed. His mandibles flexed. (We knew that these were called mandibles because Stephen went through an entomology phase a few years back.) They looked elegant, like polished wood.
“Boys, you should go,” Nick told us. He cleared his throat. “Now.”
We just stood there. We stared at Nick. We could see sweat begin to bloom in the center of his t-shirt. We stared at the man and his mandibles and his collar. We wondered, despite everything, which denomination he belonged to.
The man spoke again, and beneath his voice, we heard a riot of clicking sounds, like a complicated, straining machine.
“Do not worry about them, Nicholas. I am only a scout. But we will return for you.”
The man grinned, and his mandibles snapped together, and he fell apart.
It began with his fingertips and his toes and the top of his head. His body dropped off in pieces, and we realized that each splintered chunk was a stag beetle, whole and squirming. Some beetles were deep red, and others were black. They sounded like handfuls of marbles clattering to the floor, and once they dropped, they began to scuttle towards the open door.
But once the man was beetles, we could do something to stop him, and so we did. Why not? We now suspected Nick had a backstory full of dubious morality, but he was a good guy.
Noah ran to the door and heaved it shut. He stretched to grab a broom and began to brush the beetles toward the rest of us like some sort of hockey player. This flipped some of the beetles over, and their legs pedaled in vain. The others began to scatter.
We stomped. They crunched.
Nick seemed to be in shock, but after we killed the first dozen or so, he came out from behind the counter wielding a can of Raid. We went through the Blood and turned over boxes and peered between bottles and looked beneath displays, and whenever we found a beetle, we crunched it beneath the soles of our tennis shoes or smashed it with some of the more expendable bottles.
We got them all, and then we got to work putting everything back and sweeping the hundreds of beetle carcasses into dustpans and then into the trash.
We mopped up, too. And with the six of us, it didn’t take long.