It takes so little to become a god that it terrifies me to know it. Enough will, enough thoughts directed on you. Enough focus, sometimes. Enough sacrifices, if one walks stranger paths. It’s easier to be a god than it is be to be a person. I think that’s part of why it’s so easy for me to eat them. My name’s Charlie and I’m a god-eater. I don’t know how many others exist – I’ve been told by a god that there used to be an entire order devoted to finding and training my kind. Perhaps they missed me. It’s probably for the best, since my first attempt to eat a god ended up with the monster in my closet inside me.
Travelling with a magician does things like that. I did that for a time, until things got too hard. Until choices were made I couldn’t deal with. Now I’m travelling with a ghost who is a ghost-eater, and employed by the department of education. CASPER’s mandate is to show people that ghosts are just spooky noises and damaged pipes, and make sure that is all that’s left behind at any place we’re sent.
Dyer is good at dealing with ghosts. I deal with everything else, near enough, because there is far worse than ghosts in the world. Right now far worse is a twelve-year old boy named Stefan who is determined to join us in exploring the loft of his grandmother’s old farmhouse. Dyer is talking to the grandmother, making soothing noises and calming her, gently convincing her that she didn’t see a spirit appear in the middle of the living room who looked like her dead husband and screamed, ‘For God’s sake, I’m burning! Hell burns!’ Even if the ghost had done that, because being dead doesn’t stop some people from being dicks.
Dyer is thin and frail, looking exactly as he did when he died. He’s also as solid as the living and denied entrance to the ghost lands because of his nature. And he’s nice, possibly because he can afford to be or because being dead over a century has given him a certain perspective on things. I have no idea, and he seems in no hurry to talk about it. Thin doesn’t fit me and I’ve never been frail at all. Thin doesn’t fit Stefan at all; the kid wheezes as he walks and is definitely more at home on a couch or in front of a computer than exploring the disused upper floors of a house for ghosts.
“Grandma said I could come,” he says in the tone of someone who has rarely been told no and has the waistline to prove it.
“And I’m saying no,” I said for the third time, letting the god inside me leak into my eyes. Hint of dark red, the suggestion of claws to my fingers. He’s not scared, not of that, but does take a wary step back anyway. I ate the monster that lived under my bed and kids know that somehow, on some level of instinct that leads them to trust me. I’d worry more about what that says about kids if I didn’t remember being one.
“Grandma wants me to exercise more, and this is that,” he says, crossing his arms as best he can and glaring at me. “Everyone knows ghosts aren’t real.”
I want to ask why they all know that if so many people claim to have seen them, but CASPER is about keeping people skeptical. Damned if I know why. I reach out a hand and raise his chins, and tell myself to stop being a jerk. Dyer might, if he was here. It’s hard to know with him. Jay would; the magician would. I let out a breath, let go. “You’ve seen it, then.”
“I saw something; I’ve seen better CGI in movies,” he snaps.
“Someone told me once that half the time it feels like reality is a cheap substitute for fiction.” I head up the stairs to the attic at the pace Stefan sets. He’s drenched in sweat by the time we reach the attic door, though most of that is probably fear. I give the door a shove but it remains locked; I could force me way through, but not without breaking it and causing more hassle for Dyer; that he hasn’t joined me yet means he’s having trouble convincing Stefan’s grandmother she saw nothing.
I give the lock another rattle. “You know how to pick these?”
Stefan starts, then nods and pulls a paper clip from his wallet, making short work of the older door. “How did you know?”
“Anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet learns odd things.” I wait for him to step back and push the door open. The attic is cramped and musty but devoid of any dust at all. “You loved him?”
“Grandpa told the best bedtime stories.” Nothing more, but Stefan crowded up behind me.
“Right.” I take a breath, let it out, getting a feel for the attic, for the air. “What stories did you like best?”
“The ones he told me about coyote, stories his dad told him. And about raven, too, but I liked the coyote ones the most.”
“Kids tend to.” I crack my knuckles. “Thing is, not all tricksters are nice. Most are at least malicious, and pretending to be someone’s grandfather, telling someone who loved him that you were burning in hell: that counts.” I threat power into my voice, as close as I can do what magicians do, and snarl: “Come out now!”
What appears in the middle of the attic comes from somewhere else: some place twisted and strange, with colours and shapes I don’t know, and the figure is thin and looks like a man, a woman, a crow: all of that and none of it as well.
“That’s not Grandpa,” Stefan says, and it laughs at how his voice shakes, draws power from his fear.
“I am no mere god,” it says, soft and deadly.
“Yeah? This is me not giving a shit,” and I grab its energy and yank it inside, eating it in a single gulp. It goes down badly, but the god inside me tears what tries to survive of it apart.
Stefan’s face is the colour of dough as I turn back to him. “What are you?” the boy whispers.
“That’s classified. We’re with the government.”
“But you helped us.”
“The government does that sometimes.” I push. He doesn’t flinch from me as if I was a monster, makes his way down the stairs to his grandmother. I walk out via a side door to where Dyer is waiting by our RV.
“I don’t think she believed me,” he says in his soft voice. “She was too scared to believe and anything I could have done to force it would have damaged her. Whatever was up there was not just a ghost, was it?”
“Nope. It’s gone anyway, though.”
“Good.” He says nothing else. I close the red gate of the old farmhouse behind me and wonder why a trickster manifested here, but we have a limited mandate, too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. I flag the file, and text Jay in case the magician wants to wander this way.
We leave, but we leave behind people a little less afraid behind us.