"You're going to have us in the loony bin by the time all's been said n' done," Gordon heaved at Joe, breaking a silence that pervaded their ride since his gruesome account. His companions came to with a start, rattled and shaken from their dreams of murderous Frenchmen and knife-wielding dolls.
"Who's turn?" Joe asked, ignoring him.
"Mine," Mali offered.
"'Sgon be as rough as the last trade, may'swell tell me a lullaby and put this little girl back to sleep," Casey said, watching the hills outside her window dive into the endless black behind them.
Gordon pitched the die to the vibrating, gum-stained floor of the bus. It tumbled and shook, crackling as it bounced along the finely-perforated steel. Six white dots stared back at the troupe.
"What's the word, then?" Joe asked.
Parker, who until then had remained hidden beneath his jacket (brilliantly cyan and embroidered with the ghoulish face of a dying Christ across the back), muttered, "Triumph." He didn't meet the eyes of his fellow travelers.
"A bit hard to speak of triumph when we're rendered to the dismal spirits of a nightly story, don't you think?" Gordon pondered, scratching at a mole on the underside of his chin.
"Not when it isn't my story," Mali said, producing a cell phone from the recesses of her clothes. She dialed and studied the screen for a moment, the luminescence of LCD reflecting in her dark eyes, before holding it out for all to see. She had directed her phone's browser to the archives of a local newspaper in the midwest, a bold-faced headline spanning the furthest reaches of the tiny screen, accompanied by a pixelated image of a church - no, upon further inspection, a municipal building, boasting as many spires and buttresses as even the most elaborate house of God - in flames. Parker's sigh of contempt was utterly audible.
"Day will break soon enough, my new friends," Mali said, her voice dropping to a whisper. "So settle in, for I'm about to tell you the strange and lurid tale of how New Wales burned."
Even as far as California, the news agencies couldn't resist recounting to their readers the peculiar affair of New Wales. The rise of an religious executive to the highest office of his city and the literal collapse of his ecclesiastic manifest made headlines across the nation.
In rural communities, they hailed him as a righteous vindicator of God's will, a testament to the true fighting spirit of a strong and devout Christian, and a true American. In the nation's larger cities and - of course - the college towns, he was criticized as a fundamentalist lunatic, a Jerry Falwell with wrongly-entrusted with a flaming sword, a Pat Robertson with executive authority and privilege.
His rise to power was swift and absolute, garnering the support of his townspeople with virulent castigation of the unjust and a pledge to rid New Wales of modernist demons. He promised them the world, and they, in turn, promised him their vote.
But of course, it was not Reverend-Mayor Maddox's views that caught the attention of the news media. It was the discovery of his body, torn and splayed and defaced, that captured the interest of journalists and conspiracy theorists, alike. Thankfully for them, it isn't hard to convince a private investigator to sell his crime scene photos.
You all remember, I'm sure.
The pictures on the news?
The ones where the connecting fibers at the back of his eyes were stapled to his desk?
Or how about his entrails decorating the sculpture of Christ that hung from his walls?
"That's enough!" Parker exclaimed, aghast.
"Quiet, biddy, this shit's getting good," Casey said, waving him away.
Rumors flew like the dead mayor's insides.
Anarchists? Atheists? Devil-Worshippers? Everyone had their own theory on who - or what - dismembered, disfigured, and devoured the good reverend.
Funny thing is, I know what really happened.
Two students from the local university - one formerly in the employ of the mayor's office as a speechwriter - they knew, too.
Poor bastards, they even tried to stop it, so the story goes.
Of course, as word-of-mouth recounts go, the accounts vary wildly. The common denominator I've always seem to run across is that one of them had a thing for the mayor's son, and convinced the other - a vocalist for a local band, and damn mean, too, if the stories are straight - to come to his aid, should the culprit strike again.
They found him - the mayor's son - in the cathedral the now-deceased mayor had built inside of City Hall, praying for his father's safe return to God.
They also found his father's killer, perched on the shoulders of a bronzed and crucified Christ, the blood of the mayor still caked to his clothes.
And mouth. And fangs.
I don't believe in vampires, you see. I think people who do get their good sense confused with too many reruns of Buffy.
But damn, you guys - were I ever to believe, I'd believe here and now.
Story goes, the assailant in black leapt to the floor with peregrine grace and produced a pistol from his hip. As the speechwriter took to his heels to save the mayor's son, the man in black put round after round into the poor kid's gut, laughing the whole time.
Didn't even have the decency to kill him outright. Fucking asshole.
Then he turned his gun on the would-be heroes. That's where everything gets a little stranger.
Though the bullets burst through the soft flesh of these two students, they did not falter, nor did they perish.
But man, oh man, did they ever bleed.
The nameless bards that spread this tale throughout the palest corners of the internet have all deduced their own reasoning for why these guys didn't die.
The religious ones say God was protecting them, but I don't believe that. God had packed up and left New Wales long before, I think.
The crazies, convinced the assailant was himself a bloodsucker, espouse theories that these boys were werewolves and that the bullets funneled into them bore no silver. Bullshit, I say.
Most people just assume there was something different about these two.
That one could not live without the other.
That one could not die without the other.
Whatever the case, the musician - the mean one, remember? - he stumbled and bled his way to the alter at the feet of the bronzed Christ, rivets of deep crimson escaping from all the fresh holes in his body, and retrieved both a sash and a candle. He wrapped himself in the purple fabric that colored God's sovereignty and - without hesitation - lit himself aflame.
He, too, laughed. But he did not burn.
Everything else did, though, as you can see here.
Mali paused to indicate the image on the screen of her phone again.
The fire engulfed the cathedral, bringing half of City Hall tumbling to the city streets. Rescue workers would later retrieve the badly-burned bodies of Reverend Maddox's son and an unidentifiable man in his mid-twenties - the assailant, presumably.
The bodies of neither student were ever found.
"I call bullshit," Gordon sighed.
"Why?" Mali asked, scrunching her nose at him. She resembled an irritated mouse, in some ways.
"Vampires? Invincible university students? Please, miss, you're making the whole thing up." Gordon huffed, thumbing the stem of the tiny, plastic American flag he kept in his knapsack. "'Sides, how would anyone know what happened if everyone died in the fire?"
"Weren't you listening?" Joe interrupted. "They never found the students. Maybe they lived."
"Eh, bullshit," Gordon said, perturbed.
"Supposedly, there's evidence floating around out there in cyberspace, in the form of one of the survivor's journals," Mali insisted. She thought about it a moment, then relented, "But I guess that kind of thing isn't hard to fake, huh?"
Casey shrugged and offered Mali a smile. "It's cool, baby. I believe you."
Parker looked furious, and the bus rolled on.