Freezeheads

by Andrew Hoffman

 

The bell on the door rang. Reynolds, the new manager of Blue Scoop, had installed them on his second day at the shop. His name was Jerome but he insisted they call him by his last name. The bells were put on the front door to alert employees of the entrance of a prospective customer. The shop was only twenty feet by twenty feet, with a full plate-glass front to it—it was hard not to notice customers, bell or no bell.

The bell was only one example, among many, which kept Kevin from liking his new boss, despite his best effort. Kevin had graduated from Western at the end of fall quarter with a degree in some forgettable field, which he had already almost forgotten. He had taken this ice cream job during his final two years in school, and now two months clear of academics, he had kept on. He liked being by Mt. Baker to snowboard and camp on. He liked his friends there. He had liked Leonard, the old man who owned the Blue Scoop, before a national ice cream chain had bought it. Now three scoops was the priority.

“Thanks,” Kevin said and smiled. A man and a little girl, probably the man’s daughter, exited the store.

“What happened there?” Reynolds asked, entering from the back room.

“I don’t know? What?”

Reynolds kept looking at him quizzically.

After a long moment, Kevin said, “I don’t think I understand the question.”

“How many scoops did they have on that cone?”

“Two,” Kevin said, matter-of-factly.

“What happened there?”

“That girl was probably forty pounds. As much as you would want her to try, she, I’m sure, couldn’t eat her weight in ice cream.”

“All I’m asking is that you ask. Everybody.”

“Alright,” Kevin reluctantly agreed.

“Three scoops is the focus this month.”

“It’s February.”

“I know the month. I know how to read a calendar, too. I know you don’t ask like you should. Like we pay you to do.”

Kevin frowned and nodded. Reynolds returned to the back room with an air of dignity only a middle-aged manager of a small ice cream shop can have after balling out an employee.

The bell rang again. Luckily it was Janisse. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Gonna make it through today?” she asked, seeing the look of doom running down Kevin’s face.

“Maybe.”

“Is cow-nuts-for-brains riding your ass again?” she whispered as she passed.

“Yep.”

“Just think about tomorrow.”

Janisse was vacantly beautiful. She seemingly passed through life based on looks and flirting. Reynolds had hired her after only a five-minute interview. Kevin and Eli, another coworker, chalked it up to cleavage and gum chewing. Eli thought she was a very seductive gum chewer.

When Kevin asked him to clarify about the seductive gum chewing, Eli said, “you can’t explain something like that. But if that gum chewing were any closer to sex, newborn babies would be falling out of her mouth.”

So Janisse kept wearing her work polo with the buttons unbuttoned and kept chewing gum like a porn star—almost instantly she had fans and regulars. Kevin and Eli started blending into the background behind the new starlet, which was fine by them. Then, last week, Kevin was talking to Janisse about a solo snowboarding trip he was taking to Mt. Baker the following Tuesday and Wednesday.

“You’re going alone?” she asked, in disbelief.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Alone?”

Kevin held up his arms in why not formation.

“Take me,” she said.

Kevin knew for a fact she couldn’t ski or snowboard or even stand up on either based on previous conversations.

“My ex is being a raging dick lately. It would be fun to get away. I won’t bother you. Promise.”

Then she started chewing her gum. He noticed her unbuttoned buttons. Damnit, he thought to himself. “Sure.”

* * * * *

He picked her up as planned. She was wearing a bright pink ski suit. Kevin wondered what he had gotten himself into. They rode up to the mountain in his Toyota pickup truck on winding, uphill roads while keeping flat conversation. Exes this and party that and what a bitch, right? and so on. Kevin just looked straight ahead at the mountain and nodded at Janisse’s dissection of her twenty-year-old life.

The weather was getting bad that late morning. Thick flurries of snow and wind blew his truck around the road. Janisse’s conversation didn’t pause during any of it. She just kept on. They finally pulled into the lodge at 10:45. Kevin, being a gentleman, had splurged and rented two rooms there. He usually would just drive home late, but had wanted to make a real trip of it this time. He didn’t know why now that he was there. They checked in without a hitch, except for the moment when his heart nearly stopped at hearing the grand total for two rooms for one night at the lodge. He closed his eyes and handed over his Visa card that was closer to the limit than he would have liked it to be.

“There’s a lot of Chips here,” Janisse said while they wandered up to their rooms. Their rooms were next to each other on the third floor. The elevator was out of service, so they would be forced to use the stairs the next two days.

“What’s a Chip?”

“A Canadian.”

“Why do you call them Chips?”

“Because me and my friend Alison knew a Canadian named Chip. Ever since Chip we call them Chips.”

“How did you know Chip?”

Janisse just winked. Chip must have fallen for the gum chewing too.

“If I asked Alison about Chip, would she wink too?”

Janisse just winked again.

* * * * *

One hour later they met in the hallway in front of their rooms. Kevin would have preferred half an hour, but Janisse insisted that she needed a full hour. As they walked down the hall they saw a young man stretched out, lying across the floor a few feet in front of the staircase. Kevin looked over at the elevator. The out of order sign still hung from its closed door.

“You alive, or what?” Janisse blurted out.

The young man rolled over to look dead at the voice that had just spoken to him. He thoughtfully and deliberately said, “Yes.”

“Why don’t you get out of the way then?”

The young man continued looking at Janisse and Kevin, as if he was about to speak, the entire time he slowly moved aside. He didn’t say another word. He watched without blinking as they passed and descended the stairs. Janisse looked back over her shoulder—the young man was still watching them.

“He might have been cute if he wasn’t so weird.”

“He’s probably just a Chip,” Kevin said.

“Probably,” Janisse replied, sticking out her tongue at him.

* * * * *

After renting a snowboard for Janisse, they hit the mountain. Kevin patiently went up and down the beginner hill half a dozen times with Janisse before he could coax her onto the intermediate hill. He convinced her that she would be fine considering the fresh powdery layer that had fallen over the last forty-eight hours. Half-way down on the first intermediate attempt Janisse fell at a bad angle. Her left knee buckled and she shrieked. Kevin skidded to a stop and backtracked ten feet to the pink bundle that was holding its knee in the snow. She had lifted her goggles, and despite her best sniffling effort, tears were running her face.

“Can you move it alright?” Kevin asked after unbuckling her boot from the board.

She slowly extended her knee and winced. More tears ran.

Great, Kevin thought to himself. There goes a pleasant day of boarding.

“Do you want to try and stand up, or should I get the emergency team up here?”

Janisse shook her head, wiped the tears away. Just then a teenage boarder sliced by, yelling, “Get the hell outta the way!”

After getting to her feet, Kevin locked in her boot and slowly started loping down the hill holding her shoulders to steady her on their slow, coasting descent.

“Doing okay?” Kevin asked.

Janisse tried to clamp up her grimace and nodded resolutely.

“Maybe when we get down to the lodge we can get hot chocolate or something,” Kevin said.

Janisse nodded again, not hiding her balled-up expression as well this time.

Kevin nodded and smiled back.

They had about a quarter of the hill to go, and were going at a decent pace when, out of what seemed like nowhere, they were hit from behind dead on. It felt like being hit by a linebacker going full steam, not a snowboarder trying to avoid the injured girl in the pink snowsuit and the guy helping her down the run. The hit spun them in a half circle and they planted face first in the snow. Janisse plucked her goggled head from the white and screamed in frustration. Kevin turned and yelled, “HEY! ASSHOLE!” to the red-jacketed figure that had kept his footing and was still boarding down the hill without giving them a second glance. Kevin was turning his head back around to check on Janisse, but before he could do that he saw another red-jacketed boarder wearing a red balaclava coming straight at them at a blurring speed. Before the sight could even compute in Kevin’s head, the second boarder was on them, but swerved and avoided them at the last possible moment. As the second boarder careened around the just accosted duo sitting on the snow, he made a slashing motion with his hand, directly at the right shoulder of Kevin. The pain didn’t reach Kevin’s brain until the red balaclava-clad boarder was streaking down the hill twenty feet behind them. His shoulder suddenly exploded with heat. He touched his burning shoulder with his left hand and came away with a red smear of blood.

“That guy scratched me!” Kevin said, indignantly.

Janisse was crying to the point of hyperventilating. “That’s,” inhale, “more,” inhale, “than,” inhale, “a scratch.” She composed herself for a moment. “That guy cut you with something really sharp.” She inspected the wound a little more closely. “There’s actually two cuts. Right through your jacket and into your skin.”

Kevin disbelievingly looked closer for himself. He was so taken aback he couldn’t speak. His mind was racing through every filthy, degrading name that he could think of to call that guy, but his disbelieving mouth couldn’t function to form the words.

“Let’s get going,” Janisse said, with a sudden jolt of get-up-and-go. “We should turn that prick in.” Janisse seemed more composed now than she had since the lodge. The sudden attack had given her a greater threshold for her frustrations and hurt knee.

When they reached the bottom of the hill they both collapsed into a pile on the ground to rest. Kevin was breathing like he had just finished a marathon. With the combination of assisting Janisse, being steamrolled in the back, and then lightly slashed all in one run, his gas tank had run empty faster than normal. Skiers and snowboarders were looping around them and circling over to the chairlift. Some saying obscenities to them, others just avoiding them like every other obstacle to be avoided.

A worker skied over and said, “You look tired but you’re gonna have to move. You can’t just sit right here. It’s what those benches are for over there.”

“We were just attacked,” Kevin blurted out.

“Who?”

“We were,” Janisse seconded.

“By who?”

“I guy in a red jacket,” Kevin said. He started to look around, trying to locate the assailant. “He was wearing a red face thing.”

“Like a nasal breathing patch?”

“What? No. Like a mask thing,” Kevin said, running his hands over the length of his face.

“A nasal what?” Janisse asked, incredulously.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa,” The worker said, pointing to Kevin’s shoulder. Blood was running down the sleeve of his jacket, dripping from his elbow, and making a bloody flower in the snow. The worker seemed frantic, like the types who faint at the sight of blood. “We need to get you to our doctor.”

The worker helped Kevin to his feet. Janisse was left to get up on her own, bad knee and all. The worker picked up their two boards and ran them over to the ski stand. Kevin turned and surveyed the bottom of the hill one more time for red jackets. Suddenly he saw two. They had just sat on the ski lift not fifty feet from where Kevin and Janisse stood. The one pulled the balaclava from his head and smiled at Kevin. Then he began to lick his fingers. Just like you would lick barbecue sauce off. To his astonishment, he recognized the slasher. It was the young man who had been lying in the hallway of the lodge. The one Janisse said might be cute if he wasn’t so weird. Kevin turned to Janisse, who was rubbing her temples with her eyes closed. If she only knew how weird that guy was. Kevin looked back at the finger licker who was now laughing with his companion. He gave Kevin the PEACE sign but Kevin knew he wasn’t being wished any kind of peace by the maniac in red.

* * * * *

Kevin ended up getting four stitches on each laceration across his shoulder. The stitches hurt more than the birth of the cuts. Janisse all but forgot about the twisted knee she had sustained. She sat quietly by Kevin as the doctor worked on him, refusing to leave due to her paranoia of the boarders in red. Even though they hadn’t sliced into her, the knock down had shaken her, as well as the possibility of their return.

After a couple hours in the lodge emergency area, they made their way back to their rooms. Janisse shyly asked if she could stay in Kevin’s room a while. She was agitated by the idea of being alone, he could tell. He could also see there was no other motives in her request—simply the company of another at the end of a strange and singularly frightening day on the mountain.

They sat and watched television for a short time. They clicked through court shows, sit-coms, the obligatory Warren Miller documentary, and an array of other unwatchable and unnamable fodder. Kevin suddenly turned the T.V. off and jumped off the bed, then winced, as his shoulder screamed, reminding him of the injury he had momentarily forgotten.

“You hungry?”

Janisse nodded. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.”

“How about I run down and grab some food and bring it back up. I’m not really in the mood for a restaurant or anything.”

“I’m not either.”

“Your order, ma’am,” Kevin asked with a slight bow, trying to bring a smile to Janisse’s beleaguered face.

She did smile—then stood and said, “Just a cheeseburger and a Coke please,” then held the sides of her imaginary dress and dipped into a curtsy.

“Coming right up,” he replied, and backed up to the door in his bowed down position, not turning his back on the queen of the room.

He closed the door behind him and proceeded to the stairs, passing the spot where the young man had been on the floor, stretched out, earlier that day. The memory of the young man did not escape him as he passed and his shoulder flared again. While in the emergency room they had filed a report about the incident, and they were assured it would be taken seriously, but that didn’t ease his thoughts of running into the weird young man again.

Just as he took the first step on the stairs Janisse stuck her head out into the hallway. “Kevin,” she pleasantly hollered. “Can I come with you?”

“Sure. Come on.”

She closed the door behind her and lightly ran to catch up. “Sorry if I’m being a pest,” she said. She didn’t seem to be able to make eye contact as she spoke but looked like she had sincerely tried.

“You’re not a pest. Just a slight nuisance,” he said, winking at her.

She stuck out her tongue in reply.

That was when Janisse heard footsteps behind them. She looked back over her shoulder. She tugged on Kevin’s shirt sleeve. He looked at her, saw she was looking back, and followed her gaze.

They both watched as the young man who had pulled the red balaclava from his head and had licked his fingers not four hours ago on the mountain was coming at a fast clip down the stairs in their direction. In his panic, not exactly knowing why, Kevin pulled on Janisse’s arm and guided her to the landing of the stairs the next floor down and ran toward a door that had an emergency exit sign. He wanted to get where people were. As many people as possible. This guy had really creeped them out and they didn’t want to be alone with him to learn any more.

The emergency exit door was locked. Kevin shoved at it one last time with all his energy. It didn’t budge. He turned around as the young man was making the corner toward them, maybe fifteen feet back.

“So much for an emergency,” Kevin mumbled. Janisse did not respond.

The young man slowed to a stop ten feet away.

“Hi,” the young man said.

Kevin and Janisse didn’t say anything back.

The young man’s jaw twitched. “Hi,” he repeated.

“What do you want?” Janisse asked in a genuine piss and vinegar voice.

The young man’s jaw twitched rapidly for a couple seconds. Then he smiled at them. He held up the peace sign that he had flashed at Kevin from the ski lift. Kevin was confused. Was this guy just mentally slow and dangerous?

“What do you want?” Janisse repeated more sternly.

“What I’ve wanted since I saw you,” the young man said thoughtfully. “I just wanted him to know he can’t protect you. I wanted him to understand that.”

The young man was staring directly at Kevin.

“Do you understand that?” The young man asked.

“Nope,” Kevin said. Janisse squeezed his arm at that answer.

The young man’s jaw twitched again. More harshly this time. He had been holding the peace sign up the entire time, never wavering. Then something unexpected happened. Something that neither Kevin nor Janisse could ever have imagined. The fingers that were signing peace to them grew. Then Kevin realized it wasn’t the fingers that were growing, it was his nails. They only grew a couple of inches, but the suddenness and unexpectedness of it made both Kevin and Janisse stop breathing. The young man stretched his hands. Only the pointer and middle fingers had extended nails, the others had stayed the same.

Then his jaw twitched harder, faster than it previously had. The effect the nails made on Kevin and Janisse almost overshadowed the strangeness of the increasingly rapid jaw tic. Until his jaw seemed to unhinge completely, and two fang-like teeth folded down from the roof of his mouth.

Kevin instinctively started to look for other routes of escape. The only option he saw was an unmarked door that was closed five feet from where he stood. He had no way to know if it was open, but there were no other outs. The young creature saw Kevin look at the door. All three darted for it.

The door was unlocked.

Kevin was through the door quickly, holding Janisse’s right hand as he sprinted. It had opened inward making entry quicker but closing the door behind them a little slower. They had just beat out the young fanged man by a heartbeat, and not much more. As Kevin turned to slam the door in the face of the young man, hopefully rattling around those too-large teeth in the process, Janisse jerked back. Kevin saw the young man had a hold of her left hand and was hacking at her wrist with his overgrown fingernails. And his nails were as sharp as Kevin’s shoulder remembered. In four swift rakes on her wrist, the young man had lopped her hand completely off. Just as the hand came free, the young man lost his balance very briefly in a backward direction, at which time Kevin helped him by giving him a boot to the chest and slammed the door. To Kevin’s amazement, the door had a lock. He locked themselves in.

Kevin fumbled around for a light switch. It took him a moment to find the string that hung from a bulb in the middle of the room. Janisse was sweating so much that she gleamed like George Washington’s face on a new quarter. She was hyperventilating. Kevin had never seen anything like a hand being chopped off, but he had seen plenty of broken bones on the slopes over the years and knew the onset of shock when he saw it. Blood was flowing out of her wrist at an Olympic swimmer’s pace. She was lightly banging her head against the wall it rested on. Kevin quickly took off his shirt and held it on Janiss’s stump. The light blue shirt was quickly turning dark blue.

He looked around at his surroundings. They were in a janitor’s closet, it seemed. Yellow bucket with a mop-handle sticking out of it. Assorted cleaners, cleansers, sponges, wet floor signs, and garbage bags lined the shelves. The room was probably eight feet by eight feet. He was looking for anything to help stop the bleeding and could see or think of nothing. Streak-free glass cleaner? Orange-scented sanitizers? The room was medically useless.

Sweat was dripping from Janisse’s chin and falling on Kevin’s arm, like rain from an awning. Now her breathing wasn’t so much hyperventilating as it was irregular he thought. Out of frustration and fatigue his body slumped down to the side. His skin hissed and he jerked back off of the radiator. He touched the hot coils with his fingers. They hissed too. The radiator was hot enough to cause a hospital-worthy burn. He looked over at Janisse. She was only breathing through her nose. Her mouth was wrenched up. She looked pale.

“I hate to do this,” Kevin said.

“What?” she whispered in a frail voice.

Kevin removed the soaked shirt from her sad wrist, threw it to the opposite corner with wet smack against the wall. He firmly pressed her wrist against the radiator. The blood cracked as it cooked—like bacon in a frying pan. Like cold glass that cracks on extreme summer days. All Janisse did was exhale loudly and slide over to the ground. Kevin almost felt sick. For reasons he could not explain, he felt like he had just put a horse with a broken leg out of its misery. Maybe it was just the lifeless way she slid to the floor of the janitor’s closet.

Kevin looked at her wrist. It was ugly but the bleeding had almost slowed to a stop. With Janisse out cold, and with his lack of medical wherewithal, he pressed her wrist against the radiator again, to cauterize it as well as a radiator could. It seemed to work. The little closet smelled like a horrific sunburn. Now Kevin’s breathing was irregular. He was sweating like a geyser. He lay his head down next to Janisse’s. Looked at her face. It was a face of repose. A gentle countenance. Then Kevin heard a light tap on the door.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you two,” said a young voice.

Kevin could hear the young man humming and the raspy in-out of Janisse’s breathing. He hadn’t responded to the crazy young man’s taunt. He just sat—thinking. His cell phone was back in his room. He checked Janisse’s pockets. Empty except for her room key and a pack of gum. She hadn’t brought her purse with her. The humming paused.

“I’m holding her hand,” the young man said, “like we’re on a date.”

Kevin’s heart started to beat harder.

“Not much blood, though,” the young man added.

Kevin couldn’t help but ask the dumbest sounding serious question he had ever asked. “What… are you a vampire or something?” The very question made his skin crawl, but what else could he ask after he had seen those needle-like teeth fold down and the blood comment.

“Vampires are myth and lore and for the movies. I’m real. I’m sitting outside your door.”

“Someone will walk by.”

“Let them. I can barely hear you through the door. I’m sure, twenty feet away, at the stairs, they wouldn’t even notice you yelling.”

“If you’re not a vampire, what are you?”

“Like I said, all I am is outside your door holding your girlfriend’s hand.”

“What’s with the sharp teeth, then?”

“Is that really what you’re curious about?”

“Why were you licking my blood off of your nails and why chop her hand off?”

“To be honest, I just wanted to get stoned.”

“What do you mean?”

“Does that mean more than one thing here in America? It sure as hell doesn’t mean I want to have rocks thrown at me.”

“You use blood to get stoned?”

“I’m getting bored with this conversation.”

“That can’t be true. You can’t be real.”

“God knows about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I hope you’re not like this when you’re not panicking.”

“Like what?”

“Thick as a cedar stump.”

“God only knows about you as my hallucination.”

“No,” the young man said, “he knows about me for very different reasons.”

He started humming again.

Neither of them talked for the next ten minutes. Just humming that floated under the door like a poisonous gas. It rose up and dripped into Kevin’s ears. Do I know that tune? He wondered briefly at one point.

Janisse was still breathing like an old house sounds in a windstorm. A groan here. A creak there. All loose boards and rusty nails for lungs.

The small room with the warm radiator was starting to get muggy from the incessant sweating of Kevin and Janisse.

Kevin started to realize that they were not going to be saved from this Chip. If they were waiting to be rescued, they were apt to be waiting a good while. His eyes scanned the room in desperation. Cleansers and sanitizers and dusters yawned back at him, believing themselves to be useless to him. Then he saw something interesting, and a flint-spark idea came to him. He looked at the incapacitated body of Janisse, laying next to him, in an awkward position. He sat her up against the wall, next to the door. She sat limp like a forgotten ventriloquist’s puppet, jaw hanging by loose wires. Then he grabbed the replacement broom handle from the corner it was leaning in. He propped it against the wall, on the other side of the door from Janisse.

He shook her shoulder lightly. Nothing. She wasn’t waking up for awhile. Kevin sat a moment and took in the sight of her slack face. He gazed at her stumped arm. He put his hand on her knee.

“I need a sacrifice,” Kevin said, no louder than a light breath. Then he thought better of it. “I need a decoy,” he finished, more accurately.

Kevin looked at the door. He tried to look through it as much as he could. To the other side, where the young man sat holding Janisse’s severed hand.

“What are you going to do to us?” Kevin yelled.

“You ask boring questions.”

The voice sounded like it was a few feet back from the door. “What’re you going to do, huh?” Kevin yelled, again.

“I’m getting very…”

Kevin unlocked the door and threw it open quickly. He slid Janisse out across the hardwood floor away from both him and the young man. The young man stood frozen, looking at Kevin, glancing over at Janisse, then back at Kevin. The young man darted toward Janisse. Kevin grabbed the broom handle and sprinted after him. The young man arrived first, then turned to get his bearings on Kevin’s approach. That was when Kevin descended on him with the cleaning apparatus. A girl stepped down on the landing of the stairs, saw what was happening, and screamed.

* * * * *

Kevin sat on the floor, slouched against the wall. The bloody broom handle had just been confiscated by the police. The young man and Janisse had just been taken by the paramedics. Ski lodge management was standing by in horror. None of them could believe this had happened at their ski lodge. There were groups of snowboarders and skiers standing around gawking. Despite the shock of the display, the two factions had managed to separate themselves much like boys and girls at a middle school dance. An older cop walked up to Kevin.

“Gonna have to take you down to the station. You know that, right?”

Kevin nodded.

“I would categorize this as an abnormal display, son. Even among this group of partiers, and snowboarders, and snow-bunnies, and what-have-you’s.”

Kevin nodded.

“You beat the hell outta that boy. You realize that?”

“I told you already—he’s not some normal boy.”

“I know you said that. I heard your story, which just compounds the abnormality of this whole deal.”

“I know,” Kevin said, in defeat.

“We’ve yet to see signs of the nature you describe with that boy.”

“Keep looking.”

“We intend to do our job. No pep talk from you is going to change that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kevin wiped a splotch of blood on his pants.

“Not to mention, that girl’s hand was hacked off.”

* * * * *

After a week of dealing with the police, Kevin finally was back at Blue Scoop. They had initially arrested him, but there were no charges brought against him by the young man. Then, Janisse finally came around and was able to talk, two days after the incident. She told the police the same far-fetched story that Kevin had. The police still could find no evidence of fangs or rapidly growing, razor-sharp fingernails on the young man. They released him but kept a close eye on him as they ruminated over what to charge him with if that day ever arrived.

Kevin went to see Janisse in the hospital. He waited in the hall until he saw her mother leave her room. He slipped inside.

“Hello,” he said, catching her by surprise. She had been looking out the window.

She smiled back at him. “They said I might’ve died if you hadn’t stopped the bleeding.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die.”

She smiled again, but more sadly this time. “Me, too.”

“How do you feel?”

“I’m on painkillers most of the day. I don’t feel much—of anything. I just mostly feel like I’m in a dream.”

“Are you dreaming now?”

“I don’t think so.”

Kevin put his hands in his pockets. He looked out the window. There was a supermarket across the street. People were filing in and out. Loading their trunks and beds of their trucks with sacks of food.

“They can’t put my hand back on. They said there was probably never a good chance, but it’s impossible after you burned the wound closed. At least that’s what they said.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I lived.” She pulled her bandaged stump out from under the bed sheet. She moved it around in the air, trying to get a feel for the new sensation of weightlessness it gave her. “Just don’t stop being my friend. Okay?”

“Why would I?”

“My friends will be nice and supportive at the beginning. But with the types of friends I have, most of them probably won’t be around much longer.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting rid of some friends that were never really friends.”

Then a nurse walked in. They said their pleasant goodbyes and Kevin left.

* * * * *

Things seemed very different now that he was back at Blue Scoop. Reynolds went about the corporate business of ice cream as if nothing strange had happened the previous week. Three scoops! was still his battle cry. Eli worked with Kevin his first day back, although he didn’t ask too many questions. The rumors, some true, some not, were flooding through Bellingham. Eli had heard that Kevin had actually stabbed the Canadian with a Swiss Army knife. Eli would get the whole story eventually. He would just give Kevin some space at first.

Kevin had worked half of his first shift back in a daze. He thought maybe he was dreaming, like Janisse had felt on the painkillers. As he was looking around for clues of reality, a man with black hair walked through the door.

“How’s it going today?” Eli asked before the bell on the door had time to stop clanging.

“You Kevin?”

“No,” Eli said.

“Where’s Kevin?”

“I’m Kevin,” Kevin said, deciding this was reality after all.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“About what?”

“About fucking up my girl’s life, is what,” the black-haired man said, as menacingly as he could.

“You must be Ben.”

“Must be.”

“The one who was fucking up her life before I came around.”

Ben pointed at him. “I catch you outside these doors I’m cuttin’ your hands off. You hear me? Both of ’em”

Kevin felt no fear at all. This threat was as deadly to him as a kitten. He had confronted something very like a vampire and come out on top a week ago. What was some ex-boyfriend with a big mouth to him now? Not much. Kevin turned and picked up a slicing knife from the counter that they cut bananas for splits with. He tossed it on the ground in front of Ben. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin said.

Astonished, Ben said, “See about what?”

Kevin walked around the counter. Eli’s pulse was skyrocketing. Even if this didn’t scare Kevin, it was frightening the living tar out of Eli. Kevin pulled up his sleeves to expose his wrists. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin repeated, directly in front of Ben.

Ben stood silent. Maybe even shaking a little. Kevin picked up the knife from the ground, grabbed Ben’s hand, and placed the knife in it. “Cuttin’ time,” Kevin said.

Ben’s silence continued. Kevin shook his head. “Ben, you’ve disappointed me.”

“Kevin, what’s going on?” Reynolds said, walking out of the back office.

“Ben just finished disappointing me,” Kevin said evenly. “I won’t return the favor.” Kevin turned quickly back to Ben and pushed him as hard as he could. Ben stumbled backwards into the glass front of the store and went right through the glass onto the sidewalk outside. The glass broke just like sugar-glass in the movies. Ben lay on the ground, writhing a little. He kept spitting glass out of his mouth. He looked confused. Reynolds ran out the door to go check on the ejected man. He hunkered down next to Ben and called 911 on his cell.

“What have you done?” Reynolds yelled at Kevin.

Kevin walked behind the counter, got a scoop of Blueberry ice cream, and threw it at Reynolds. It hit him squarely in the shoulder of his white button-down shirt. “There’s your third scoop, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Kevin walked out of the store, left his truck in the parking lot and walked home.

* * * * *

He arrived at his apartment two hours later. No police. He was surprised. He walked inside and sat on the couch. After a half-hour, or so, of waiting, he fell asleep.

Knocking woke him up. He had been sleeping three hours. He figured it was the police. When he opened the door he saw Janisse’s mother. She was frowning at him in a very motherly way.

“Hello,” Kevin said, politely.

“Hi, Kevin.”

“How did you know where I live?”

“Janisse told me. She wanted me to thank you. I don’t agree with how you handled it but she wanted me to come thank you.”

“Handled what?”

“Ben.”

“You heard?”

“She did. I think Eli called her.”

“Oh.” Kevin almost looked ashamed.

“Don’t feel too bad about it, he deserved it. But don’t repeat that.”

“I won’t,” Kevin said.

They both grinned.

“The cops never showed up. I thought they would.”

Janisse’s mother shrugged. Kevin noticed she was chewing gum. It was very seductive, as Eli would have said. Kevin could see where Janisse got it from.

 

Looking for Work?

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Phil looked at the classified ad for the thousandth time.

“Looking for a new job filled with excitement and eye-opening experiences?” it asked. “Come to 1329 Home Ave. at 3:00 pm on Monday for open interviews.”

Ordinarily, Phil wouldn’t have answered something so vague, but he was reaching the point of desperation. There were bills that needed to be paid and food that needed to be bought. If there had been anything else in the paper that seemed even remotely promising, he wouldn’t have gone.

But there hadn’t been, so he found himself parked in front of 1329 Home Ave. at a few minutes past 3:00 wearing a shirt and tie he’d bought over the weekend. He’d even polished his shoes that afternoon in order to make a good impression. As he looked out his windshield at the front of the building, though, he wondered why he’d bothered.

When Phil thought about what a business was supposed to look like, many things came to mind. Shop fronts, offices filled with cubicles, and even restaurants. In his mind they all had exteriors that, if not new, were at least professional looking. This place did not qualify.

He was parked in the gravel driveway of the building. The gravel driveway that was also an alley. The cracked, brick sides of the two neighboring structures loomed over him, blanketing everything in shadow. At the far end of the alley was an old, monkey-shit brown Buick. It was parked at the foot of a metal staircase that, like the Buick, was spotted with the reddish tint of rust. The stairs were connected to a deck that overlooked the alley, but he couldn’t see anything past that. All in all, though, he didn’t have a good feeling about this interview.

“What am I doing?” he asked the air. “Do I really need a job this bad?”

Yes, he thought. I do.

He climbed the staircase, taking each step with hesitant caution. The metal groaned, bowing with his weight. When he finally reached the top, he breathed a sigh of relief. As he looked around, he wondered again why he’d bothered. There were piles of junk strewn across the weathered deck, and Phil couldn’t help thinking he’d walked into a particularly frightening episode of Sanford and Son. There were chairs with no seats, a tired-looking old oven, and several hunks of metal he couldn’t identify. The more he looked around, the more he suspected the ad had been a misprint.

I’m here, he thought. I might as well talk to someone. If it ‘s the wrong place, it’s the wrong place, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

He’d heard a story once about a serial killer that used classified ads to trick people into coming to his home. Images of being bound and gagged by a greasy-shirted maniac flashed through his mind, but he squashed them. He really needed money.

There was a door a few feet away from the top of the stairs, and Phil made his way to it through the piles of junk. The screen door opened with a startling screech, and he knocked on the door. He waited. A minute went by. He knocked again.

“Oh, fuck this,” he said.

As he turned to leave, the door swung in, causing Phil to jump. Looking out from the darkened doorway was a very angry man.

“What the fuck do you want?”

The man looked as though he’d just woken up. His eyes were red and there was a red mark along the left side of his face. He wore a white t-shirt and a pair of faded camouflage pants, both of which were beyond wrinkled. His head was shaved, but there was a good deal of stubble covering his face and scalp, suggesting it had been a few days since either had seen a razor. It was difficult to tell, but Phil thought the man was in his mid-forties.

“I… uh… I mean…” Phil stammered, trying to find the words to explain himself.

“I said what the fuck do you want? You better have a good excuse for waking a man up so early.”

Phil looked at his watch again. It was now 3:15.

“Sorry, I think I have the wrong place. I was answering an ad I found in the paper.”

The man looked him up and down, letting his eyes linger on Phil’s tie before saying: “You’re here about the ad?”

“Yeah, about the job. Like I said, I think I have the wrong place. Sorry to have bothered you.” Phil turned to leave, but the man stopped him.

“No. You’ve got the right place,” he said.

Confused, but strangely interested, Phil decided to stick around for a minute. He looked around at the piles of junk again. There was what looked like the remains of a blender on the mound next to him.

“So, uh, what exactly is it you do?”

“Follow me,” the man said. “I’ll explain inside.”

The man turned and walked into the dark apartment. Phil moved to follow him, but slowly. The situation had started to feel a little more than weird. As he stepped across the threshold, he saw the man sit on a stained couch and light a cigarette.

“Close the door behind you,” he said, exhaling.

Phil checked the room for anyone that might be waiting to jump out and attack him. When he was sure there was no one else there, he shut the door and moved toward the cluttered living room.

Empty pizza boxes were stacked around the cramped apartment. Phil wasn’t sure, but he thought they might be the cause of the strange odor. Then he saw the trashcan. It was overflowing with beer cans, pizza crusts, and what looked like chicken bones. He tried not to disturb the precarious pile, wondering how a person could live in such filth.

“So,” the man said when Phil sat down. “I guess I should ask you a few questions.”

“That’s usually how these things work.” Phil knew sarcasm wasn’t the best tool with which to procure employment, but it was all he had to keep from running out of the room.

“First, what’s your name?”

“Phillip Martin. You can call me Phil.”

“All right, Phil. You religious?”

“What? I didn’t think you could ask that sort of thing in an interview.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t a normal job. Besides, it won’t affect whether you get the job or not. I’m just trying to find out what kind of person you are.”

“All right then, no. I’m not particularly religious.”

“Good. What about education?”

“I finished high school in the top ten percent of my class, and I have some college experience. I didn’t finish, though.”

“That’s all right, you don’t need a degree. Out of curiosity, though, what did you study?”

“Philosophy, mainly. I did take a few classes on mythology and religious studies, though.”

“I thought you weren’t religious?”

“I’m not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s good. Curiosity is good in this line of work. The mythology might help out, too. When would you be able to start?”

“Immediately, I guess. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Phil took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Not at all.”

“I guess it’s just one question, really. I mean, I still don’t know anything about this job. The ad was pretty vague. What exactly would I be doing?”

“It’s a difficult job to explain,” the man said, taking another drag from his cigarette. “It’s easier to show than to tell. Know what I mean?”

“I think so. It would be nice if you could give me some sort of idea, though.”

“Well, if you get the job, you’ll be working with me as a sort of Park Ranger, but for everywhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe Animal Control would be a better comparison. We’ll patrol the area and make sure there’s nothing running loose that shouldn’t be.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Like I said, man, it’s easier to just show you. I’ll tell you what,” the man looked at his watch. “It’s almost four now. I was going to leave for patrol tonight at sundown, which should be around seven or so. If you want, why don’t you come back this evening and ride out with me? That’ll give you a hands-on feel for it, and you can decide if you like it or not.”

“I don’t know, man.” Phil stood to leave.

“Wait, I know I’m being pretty vague, but like I said it’s hard to explain. If you ride out with me tonight, though, you’ll know exactly what the job will be like. I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour, too. If you get out there and decide you don’t like it, I’ll bring you back to your car and still pay you for the night.”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

“That’s all I can ask. Like I said, I’m leaving at around seven. If you’re not here by fifteen after, I’ll know you’re not coming.”

The man stood and offered his hand. Phil took it tentatively and then headed for the door. When he was halfway out, he stopped.

“Wait, I never got your name, man.”

“Oh, sorry. Name’s Hal. Hal Jorgenson.”

* * * * *

Phil pulled back into the alley that served as Hal’s driveway at five minutes till seven. He parked beside the Buick and wondered what the hell he was thinking.

I have to be crazy, he thought. Either that or dead fucking broke. As he killed the engine of his truck, he decided it had to be a bit of both. It can’t be that bad. I’ll ride around with him for a few hours tonight, and at the end I’ll at least have enough money to buy a few groceries.

Still, as Hal appeared at the bottom of the stairs dressed in almost the same thing he’d been wearing earlier with two over-stuffed backpacks, Phil wondered again what he was doing. He waved to Hal as he got out of his truck.

“I’m surprised you came back,” Hal said as he threw the backpacks into the Buick’s back seat.

“I am, too,” Phil said, trying to smile.

“I’m glad to see you changed,” Hal said. “That tie wouldn’t’ve worked very well where we’re going.”

“Where, exactly, is that?”

“Millennium Park. I’ve been tracking one for the past few nights. That’s where the trail ends.”

“Tracking one what?”

“I’ll explain on the way. You ready?”

In answer, Phil opened the passenger door and climbed into the old Buick. When they were on the road a few minutes later, Hal lit a cigarette and turned the radio down.

“You believe in ghosts?”

Phil looked away from the window, a little surprised at the question.

“I guess, yeah.”

“Ever seen one?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve seen some weird shit in my life, but never a ghost.”

“What have you seen?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“All right. When I was, I don’t know, twelve, maybe, I was riding in the backseat of my mom’s car on the way to school. It was about three in the morning, but I was in the band, and we were taking a ‘band-trip’ to King’s Island. What a theme park had to do with the band I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. On the way there, I was looking out the window and I happened to see a… well, I don’t know what it was. It was sort of man-like, but it was big. And white. I remember that like it was yesterday. It seemed like it was glowing as it went through the street lights. Anyway, it was moving in the opposite direction as us, and it was using its arms to run, sort of like a gorilla or something. I tried to get my mom to look, but by the time she did it had already run over the hill and out of sight. I still don’t know what it was. Could’ve been a dog or something, I guess. It still sort of freaks me out to think about.”

“Do you remember if there was a full moon?”

Phil laughed. “What? You think it was a werewolf or something?”

“Maybe. Never heard of them being white before, but I’ve seen stranger things. Could’ve been an albino.”

I’m in the car with a crazy person.

“You believe in werewolves?” Phil asked, lighting a cigarette. He cracked his window to let the smoke escape.

“Don’t you?”

“Not since I was a kid, man. Ghosts are one thing. I can see how someone could leave an imprint of themselves in a place or something when they die, but werewolves? That’s like believing in vampires.”

Hal took a drag off his cigarette, but said nothing. After a few minutes of riding in silence, Phil turned the radio back up. “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin was playing. Phil tried not to think about the strange man next to him, hoping that the night would hurry and be over so he could get his money and go home, but Hal turned the radio back down.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of other people ride out with me before. They didn’t work out. I think I told some of them too much at the outset, others just couldn’t hack it. I have a good feeling about you, though, so I want to be up front. There’re things in this world that people have convinced themselves aren’t real. Like ghosts and werewolves for example. But just because we don’t believe in them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“Wait a minute…”

“Let me finish. If it turns out that you aren’t into this job, fine. But I don’t want you making up your mind before you know the truth. These creatures, entities, whatever, that our society has decided aren’t real; they’re all around us, all the time. Humans are damn good at tricking themselves, though. Even if met head on by one of these things, most people will swear they didn’t see it or that they saw something else entirely. For the sake of most people’s sanity, this is probably a good thing. But in this line of work, you have to have an open mind. All I’m asking of you right now is that you keep an open mind. Can you do that?”

“How much are you paying me again?”

Hal smiled sardonically. “Ten an hour.”

“Well then, if all you’re paying me for is to keep an open mind, I guess the least I can do is give it my best shot.”

“I guess that’s good enough.”

Hal turned the radio back up. “Swinging on the gallows pole; swinging on the gallows po-oh-ole.” Robert Plant’s wail carried them through the next few minutes until Hal pulled to the side of the road.

“Here we are,” he said, turning off the car.

“I thought the park entrance was up further?”

“It is. We’re not going through the entrance, though. This is where I found the trail, and I’m going to follow it. Here,” Hal handed a sheathed knife to Phil. It was the length of his forearm. “Hang on to this. You might need it.”

Phil was about to say something, but Hal was out of the car and lugging the bags out of the backseat before he could. Shaking his head, Phil undid his belt and ran it through the sheath’s belt loop. He didn’t know why he would need a knife, especially such a large one, but at least he was armed. If Hal was really crazy and wanted to hurt him, at least he’d have something to defend himself with. He couldn’t think why a man that wanted to hurt him would give him a weapon, though.

Phil pulled one of the backpacks on and watched while Hal pulled a large, black case out of the trunk.

“What is all this stuff?”

“Tools,” Hal said. “We probably won’t need all of it, but it’s better to be prepared.”

“A regular boy scout, huh?”

“Something like that.”

They jumped the ditch and made their way into the trees. The ground was thick with leaves, and Phil had a hard time keeping up with Hal’s pace. He moved through the trees like someone that had spent more of his life out in nature than inside, barely making any noise. Phil, on the other hand, was making enough noise to more than make up for Hal’s silence.

After close to half an hour of trudging through the forest, a howl in the not far distance caused Hal to stop. He looked around for a moment, as though trying to determine the direction from which it came, and then set off again. Phil, trying not to lose him in the darkness, caught his foot on a hidden root and fell face first onto the ground. He pulled himself back up, cussing, but Hal was gone.

As he turned around, looking for his companion, Phil became aware of how quiet it was. There were no birds chirping; not even the wind made a sound.

“Hal?” he called, his voice jarring in the silence. “Where are you?”

A hand gripped his shoulder from behind, and he whirled around. Hal held his finger before his mouth, signaling for Phil to be quiet.

“It’s not far,” he whispered. “Try to stay quiet.”

Hal turned, leading them deeper into the trees. Phil followed, making as little sound as possible. After several minutes, Hal stopped and pulled his backpack from his shoulders. He set it on the ground and opened it, rummaging until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he whispered, holding something out.

The object was heavier than its size would suggest. Phil realized after a moment that it was a set of binoculars.

“Those are night vision and very expensive,” Hal said. “Be careful.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

“Look through them. Over there,” he pointed toward what looked to be a clearing a few hundred yards down the hill. “Tell me what you see.”

Phil looked through the binoculars, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He scanned back and forth a few times, but there was nothing.

“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Wait. Is that… I think I see a dog.”

“What kind of dog?”

“I don’t know. A rottweiler; maybe a mastiff. Shit, I don’t know. It’s big.”

“I bet it is. Look at its legs. See anything weird?”

“Not really. It’s just scratching its back against a tree.”

The dog reared back its head and howled. A shiver ran up Phil’s spine.

“What about its legs?” Hal asked. “The legs always give them away.”

“What are you talking about?”

Phil lowered the binoculars. A new wave of fright coursed through him. Hal was holding a rifle. Before Phil could say anything, Hal turned and pointed it toward the dog.

“What are you doing, man?”

“Are you sure you don’t see what I’m talking about?”

Phil raised the binoculars to his eyes again, but all he saw was a large dog. It was rolling around on the ground now. Its legs did seem a bit longer than normal, but he couldn’t see anything particularly odd about them.

“Watch,” Hal said.

“You can’t fire that thing in the park,” Phil said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to kill an animal, too. You can’t just…”

Hal pulled the trigger; the shot echoed through the trees. A second later, Phil heard a growl followed by a high-pitched wail. Hal fired again; the dog fell silent.

“There,” Hal said. “I got it.”

“You’re fucking crazy man. What the hell are you thinking? I can’t believe you just…”

“Shut up and come with me. I’ll show you.”

“I don’t want to see a dead dog, man. I can’t believe…”

Hal grabbed Phil by the shoulders. “Calm down. Just walk over here with me. I told you it’s easier to see for yourself than to have someone tell you, didn’t I?”

Still in shock, but somewhat afraid Hal would shoot him if he didn’t, Phil followed him down to the clearing. As they got closer, Phil could hear a whimpering, but it didn’t sound like a dog anymore. The closer they got, the more Phil thought the whining sounded human.

“What’s going on,” he asked, but Hal ignored him.

They entered the clearing, but the dog was gone. In the exact same place where Phil had seen it rolling around before, though, was a man. He was naked and bleeding.

“See what I was telling you now?”

“What the fuck have we done?”

Phil followed Hal over to the body, overcome with panic. The dying man looked up at them, blood covering his face. Phil couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was smiling.

“Thank you,” the man said, coughing up blood. “Thank you so much. I… I…” he coughed again. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he died.

“So,” Hal said, turning away from the dead man. “You want the job or not?”

 

The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.

 

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Helen Lloyd Montgomery

 

I was attacked by hummingbirds on my way home from work today. You know what they are. Tiny emerald speed demons. People used to hang out jars of red sugar water for them. They don’t any more. They’ve learned better.

A lot of things have changed over the years but not the aggressive nature of hummingbirds. I’d just come out of the office when they swarmed over the top of the building and were all over me like stupid on a chicken. Tiny wings blurred and neck feathers flared bright as the thumb-sized creatures buzzed me. A needle-like pain in my thigh was the first clue that I’d been struck. The second clue was the iridescent bastard that hung there with his beak buried in my flesh to feed.

Oh, did I forget to mention? Hummers don’t go for nectar these days. They’ve learned to prefer the taste of blood.

With an angry shriek, I swung my pocketbook at it. It darted away before I could connect but I took out a couple others on the fly as I took off running for my car. It was a fair run, too, because, I’d parked at the far end of the parking lot that morning. Meanwhile, I was taking a lot of hits from these guys. I swing a mean pocketbook though, and by coupling a wild counter-attack with a chaotic advance, I managed to break free of most of them by the time I reached my car. Bleeding from a hundred tiny puncture wounds, I opened the door while trying to sling off a die-hard who’d clamped onto my finger with a grip like razor-wire. When slinging didn’t work, I made a fist and smashed him into the back window before jumping inside to safety.

One of the little pee-wees accidentally got inside with me. I began to smile, his buzzing antics amusing now that I had him alone, without backup. If he hadn’t already realized his mistake, he’d learn soon enough that the tables had turned.

Outside, the tiny army regrouped. Hordes of angry hummers hovered about the car, glaring through the windshield at me.

“Well, well. Looks like I’ve got your buddy.” I grinned at my audience. “Would you like to watch what I’m going do to him?”

They beat wildly at the windows while he whirred frantically here and there trying to escape. I rummaged around and came up with a can of windshield de-icer. On his next pass, I let him have it. Several fly-bys later, I’d soaked not only the passenger seat but the bird’s lovely plumage, too. The alcohol in the de-icer cut through the protective oil on his feathers, clipping his wings rather effectively I thought, and he fumbled a landing. Chortling wickedly, I picked the little bugger up by his head and dangled him in front of me.

“Here, now, you don’t look so big and bad. I ought to pinch your head off.”

The tiny bloodsucker twisted in my grip and emitted a squawk.

“What?” I said, cupping a hand to my ear. “You don’t like that plan? Okay, I’ve got a better one.”

I have a Tupperware container I keep in the floorboard of the car for storing auto insurance papers, CDs, Minnesota winter survival gear, stuff like that. I dumped the contents out and dropped him in, setting it on the seat where all his pals could watch. I pulled my lighter out of a pocket and struck the flint, brandishing the resulting flame at my diminutive, bedraggled prisoner. He chirped a birdie profanity at me and tried to drag himself away.

“You little hot-shots think you’re so tough. You think you can jump anybody you please,” I said, flourishing the torch at the bird. He dripped ponderously away from each thrust. “Well, pay attention to who you’re messing with next time. I can take that aerosol can and turn it into a blowtorch, so—”

The bird apparently decided he’d had enough of either my lighter or my bluster and tried to fly away, something I hadn’t anticipated. Bad mistake on both our parts. One wing-tip brushed the flame and poof—instant fireball. I jerked my hand back from the conflagration as the reek of burning feathers and sizzling meat filled the confines of my car. I grabbed an old towel and beat the fire out. Too late, both for the bird and my container. He’d fried to oblivion and nearly melted a hole in the plastic. The hummers outside went nuts.

I cranked the car and turned the air conditioner on high to help clear out some of the stench, then shook my fist at the little devils outside.

“Anyway, as you can see, I don’t appreciate being messed around with. And don’t you ever forget it!”

Apparently they had no intention of forgetting anything. They zipped around the car as I drove out of the parking lot and into slow-moving traffic. They beat their wings against the windows. Their throats flashed like angry red beacons as they stared in at me, demented expressions etched on their cross-eyed little faces. It was embarrassing. They stayed with me for three stoplights until I got up enough speed to outdistance them. It was a pleasure to see them dwindling in the rearview mirror… those that hadn’t ended up plastered against the grill of the car behind me, that is.

I reached my apartment complex without further incident and pulled up in front of the garage. The door opened when I pressed the button on the remote control clipped to the sun visor, until about halfway up when it suddenly reversed direction and started to close.

I hit the button a second time. It rose several feet and then mindlessly about-faced and trundled back down again.

I snatched the remote from the visor and aimed it pointblank at the door. Mashing the button repeatedly, I argued with it electronically until it opened enough for me to roll in underneath. I shook my head, parked in my assigned stall and switched the car off. Seemed like life was getting stranger every day, like I was living in the Twilight Zone or something. I got out of the car and headed for the foyer, glumly noting that my Honda was speckled with hummingbird crap.

I heard a low groan coming from the foyer ahead of me. As I rounded the corner, I saw Sal Osseo lying there on the floor in front of the door.

I only barely know Sal. He seems to be a nice enough guy, I’ve just always been reclusive. At any rate, it was sort of a shock to see him lying there like that. His legs were crumpled like an accordion and his back looked twisted. He had raised up on one elbow and was trying to reach the doorknob.

“Hey, Sal, whatcha doing, lying down there like that?”

He sighed heavily. “Trying to get into the building. Guess you might help me with that?”

“Sure, Sal. Having trouble reaching the doorknob?”

“You could say that, yeah. Just a little trouble.”

I eased past, careful not to bump him, and opened the door, watching with horrified amusement as he crawled through. He panted and groaned the whole way.

“Thanks, Sissy,” he said as he crawled over to the elevator.

My name’s not Sissy, but I let it go. He lay there for a moment staring up at the elevator call button.

“Going up, Sal?”

“No, I’m going down.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course I’m going up. We’re in the garage, for gosh sakes. Nowhere to go from here but up.”

“Well, gee, Sal, you don’t have to get testy.”

I pushed the button and waited to see if the elevator would work today. Finally the silence grew uncomfortable and my curiosity got the better of me.

“So, Sal,” I ventured. “What happened to you?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Sal shifted his weight as if settling himself more comfortably and twisted around to glance at my ankles. “I tried to kill myself a few nights ago. Jumped off my balcony. Of course, it didn’t work. It just sort of twisted my back and crumpled my legs up. Been laying out there for the last three nights. Kept calling for help, but nobody ever heard me.”

“Gee, Sal, that’s a shame. Why were you trying to kill yourself?”

“I’ve tried a few times already. A couple of months ago, I tried poison. See?”

Sal rolled over on his back and pulled up his grass-stained shirt. There, in the middle of his pasty-white belly was the most god-awful ruin I’ve ever seen. A half-healed hole in his guts big enough to put my fist through, had I been so inclined. I turned away, squeezing my eyes shut.

“Oh, jeez, Sal, cover that up. That’s gross! Don’t be showing it to people, what’s the matter with you?” I stabbed a finger into the call button a few more times. As if awakened from a deep slumber, the light behind it flickered dimly.

I don’t know. This used to be a nice place. Now nothing works right anymore and people crawl around with their guts hanging out.

With an unnerving thump, the elevator arrived. The door slid open with a raspy whine and Sal started to crawl through.

“Hey, Sissy, hold that door, will you? I don’t move as fast as I used to.”

I obliged, holding it open until he’d squirmed inside.

“Oh, that’s good!” he sighed. “So nice to be on carpet for a change.”

I got on behind him and said nothing, figuring Sal might not enjoy it so much once he had carpet burns all over his elbows. The elevator door wheezed shut and with a lurch, it began to rise.

The ride up to the third floor wasn’t as long as the wait but when the door opened, I discovered we hadn’t quite made it all the way to three. In fact, the elevator was about a foot shy of having gotten there. For me the step-up wasn’t that much of a problem. But for Sal—
Old Sal was game, I’ll admit. He was trying to make it. I shook my head again and with one hand on the elevator door to hold it open, I reached down and caught hold of the back of his belt.

“Here, lemme give you a hand.” I tugged at his lower body and half carried, half shoved him up onto the floor.

“Ooh, ouch, hey, watch it—whew. Thanks Sissy, I appreciate the lift up.”

“No problem. Hey, Sal, look at this,” I said, climbing out into the hallway. “Somebody left a grocery cart sitting here. Guess you can use it?”

Sal’s face lit up like a kid a Christmas. The cart, supplied courtesy of the apartment complex for residents to use and then never return to the garage for the next person to use, was of the variety that had a big basket up top and a large child-storage area below. He clambered into the child storage area. I raised the basket so he didn’t have to scrunch over so far. He did a triple-take when he turned to thank me and saw me for the first time.

“What happened to you?”

I must have looked a mess. I expect a hundred tiny puncture wounds can to that to a person.

“Don’t ask,” I said, wheeling him away down hall. “You live in apartment three-twenty, don’t you?”

“Yeah, this is it right here. Hang on, let me see if I can find my door key.”

He squirmed around in the bottom of the cart, searching his pockets and leaving me to wonder why someone committing suicide would take their door key with them. But he had, and grunting with effort, he reached up and unlatched his door.

I made a three-point road turn with the cart and backed in. I had a little trouble getting it over the door-frame with Sal’s weight on it. He tried to help until I rolled over his fingers. Finally, with much creative cursing on my part and reams of unnecessary direction from my passenger, I got him pulled inside. I wiped sweat from my forehead, performed another three-point turn, and pushed the cart into Sal’s den.

I came to a halt as soon as I saw the hummingbirds. They were everywhere.

There must have been hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands! The furniture crawled with them. They perched on lampshades, curtain rods, picture frames, the lop-eared antennas sprouting from the back of an ancient television. At any given moment, at least fifty were buzzing slowly through the room, searching for a place to light.

It looked like the town’s entire hummingbird population now populated Sal’s apartment. I heard Rod Serling’s voice whispering in the back of my mind.

“Sal,” I said, “why’s your balcony door open?”

Sal cleared his throat. “I must’ve left it that way when I went out to jump.”

“You didn’t close it behind you?”

“You’ll understand, I’m sure, that I didn’t expect to be coming back.”

“You thought to take your door key,” I pointed out.

“Okay! I’ll admit, maybe I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time.”

One of the hummers saw us and with a shriek, launched himself directly at us. Immediately the air turned green with hummers following suit. I hunkered down and flung my arms over my head for protection. As I did, my elbow hit the basket on the cart and sent it crashing down. It landed with a clang and a loud “Ouch!” from Sal.

I was wishing I had time to be sorry that had happened, but birds had covered me like a down comforter. One somebody had stuck needles all through, that is. Screaming obscenities I’d learned from a sailor boyfriend a few years back, I shook off as many hummers as I could and began swinging my pocketbook again. Birds went flying in directions they had not intended. So did Sal’s face when I accidentally whacked him.

I don’t understand how a man bent on committing suicide could be so vocal about getting smacked in the chops with a pocketbook, which I was finding to be about as helpful against this barrage of birdies as a fly-swatter would be against a mad swarm of killer bees. While Sal bellowed about being hit in the face, I swam through an emerald cloud of hummingbirds to a bank of light switches, flipping each one until I found one that spun up the ceiling fan. It whirred gently to life, catching a few, but not enough to make a difference. Obviously, whoever had designed the ceiling fan hadn’t designed a very efficient weapon. I needed something more.

That’s when I noticed a strange thing. Sal was sitting helplessly in the bottom of his cart, clutching his head in his hands and wailing something that sounded like “Chernobyl!” But never mind that. The strange thing was that the birds weren’t attacking him. Not a single one of them. His caterwauling must have been fending them off. I wondered if wailing “Chernobyl!” at the top of my lungs would help me, as I thought I could feel my iron level dropping under the assault. Instead, I dashed through the room and hit the “on” button on his stereo receiver and cranked up the volume, hoping the noise might drive the hummers back out the open balcony door.

I should have guessed Sal’s stereo would be tuned to National Public Radio.

A subdued conversation between an NPR moderator and a member of the local Audubon Society emanated from the woefully under-used Polk speakers as I ran into the kitchen. In the den, Sal whimpered “Exxon Valdez!” while I dashed past the gas stove, flipping on burners. Hummers swarmed after me as I skidded into fighting position between the stove and the sink. Those that I relocated with my pocketbook never recovered from the blast of heat and flames I sent them careening through with my deadly backhand.

That was more like it! I sent scads of the little devils tumbling straight to hell. It would have been quite fun to watch the tiny flaming explosions under other circumstances. But at this rate, I’d be drained of blood before I got them all. Besides, they were catching on to this tactic and countered by flanking me. What I needed was a diversion. I created a small one when my pocketbook knocked a blender off the countertop. It struck the floor about the same time a faint hope struck me.

“Weapons testing in the sixties!” Sal cried.

“Hey Sal!” I shouted over NPR while maintaining a steadfast defense. “What’ve you got in the refrigerator?”

Through a shifting peacock-colored cloud, I saw him angle his head curiously at me.

“Surely you’re not going to eat at a time like this?”

“Dammit, Sal! I’m being sucked dry in here!”

He thought for a minute.

“Well, my last dinner was supposed to be liver and onions. Then, somehow, I just couldn’t stomach the idea.”

That made sense to me. I imagined the headlines on the front of the Weekly World Sun: Man With Gaping Stomach Wound Attempts Suicide Rather Than Eat Meal Of Liver And Onions.

As Sal recommenced his howling: “—mercury in our streams! Three-legged frogs!—” I snatched the blender off the floor and plugged it into an outlet by the stove. Sweat mingled with rivulets of blood as I pawed through items in the fridge and came up with the package of liver. Working as fast as I could while swatting hummers away, I filled the blender with water, hacked off a chunk of liver, tossed it in, and turned it on. Presto! Blood soup! The blender splattered the walls with what I hoped would provide a delightful change from human blood.

“Come and get it, you little bloodsuckers!” I shouted.

It worked better than I’d expected, creating a sufficient diversion. The stink of raw blood drove the hummers into a feeding frenzy. They fought each other for position. Thousands were drawn to the feast, giving me time to ransack the contents of the cabinet under Sal’s sink. While Sal lamented “migrating ozone holes!” and the blender began to suck up hummers, I came up with treasure.

I can imagine Sal, a man who eats liver and onion while listening to NPR, being a very organized type of person. The type person who, at winter’s end, brings in the car’s winter survival kit for summer storage. And he was. For there, under the sink, was a three-gallon container with candles, matches, flares, etc., all those things you might need if stranded in a sudden blizzard… and beside it, a large spray can of windshield de-icer.

In the den, Sal wailed, “Vampire hummingbirds!”

Yep. Maybe that’s what they are. And if so, maybe the environmental disaster that re-wired their tiny bodies to thrive on blood had also rewired the way their tiny minds worked. Maybe they’re telepathic, too. How else to explain an unprecedented attack such as this, considering what I’d done to one of their own not an hour earlier?

I ignored a new hypodermic jab and popped the plastic cap off the can of de-icer. I pulled my lighter from my pocket. Careful to aim the spray nozzle away from me, I flicked the lid open, and struck the flint. You can always count on a Zippo. I held the flame to the front of the nozzle, and pressed it.

Whoosh! Instant flame-thrower. It was spectacular! The three-foot tongue of flame blasted a picture from the wall. The recoil flung my grip on the can up and over my shoulder like the recoil from a 9mm cannon. Startled, I dropped the lighter. The flame went out. Birds withdrew questioningly, hung uncertainly in the air.

I grinned at ’em.

With a Rambo-like scream of defiance, I re-lit the flame-thrower and began sweeping the kitchen. It scorched the front of the refrigerator. Blasted refrigerator magnets. Seared the counters. Sautéed the chopped liver. Toasted cookbooks. Detonated a roll of paper towels hanging from a holder on the wall. Burning ash mingled with scorched feathers, drifting to the floor amidst dozens of fried hummers.

The survivors fled the holocaust back into the den, screaming tiny birdie screams of terror. I ran screaming after them. Sal screamed when he saw me.

I raked the retreating hummers with the flame-thrower. They plummeted to the floor in flames. Carpet smoldered where they crashed. Burning birdie bodies crunched underfoot as I rousted the invaders. There was no escape from my flame-throwing prowess except through the open balcony door. Panicked by my powerful advance, the hummers seemed to have forgotten it. What a shame. They dropped by the score for that mistake. I wreaked havoc on them, swept hell through their ranks. Curtains burst into flame at the touch of the flame-thrower.

“Oh!” Sal cried. “Oh, my curtains! You’ve caught my curtains on fire!”

A lampshade went up in a fiery inferno as hummers died.

“Oh, no! My new lamp!”

The sofa smoked from the heat of my revenge as I decimated the enemy. Throw pillows went up in raging glory, taking out more of the foe. The soft cloth covers on the Polk speakers flared brilliantly. Decorative candles turned to slag. Burnt hummers fell like black hailstones.

“My apartment! My things!”

I stumbled over something behind me. It was Sal, crawling as fast as he could across the floor. He was holding a fire extinguisher in one hand. He pulled the pin and began tracing my trail of destruction with destruction of his own. Many more hummers fell as I trapped them between death by fire and Sal’s stream of CO2.

Suddenly, without warning, my flame-thrower petered out. The Zippo burned my fingertips. Sucking my breath between my teeth, I dropped the lighter and tried to fling off the sting as I investigated the can of de-icer. Was it clogged? I turned the can upside down and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I turned the can right-side up and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I shook the can. It was empty.

“Thank god!” Sal cried.

The buzzing of hummers took on an undertone of interest. I smiled weakly at the several hundred birds still left alive.

“So, you guys ready to talk surrender?” I asked. The humming grew vengeful as I rapidly rethought my options. “A truce maybe?”

Guess not. Understanding that I was now weaponless, my antagonists regrouped and swooped after me. I turned and ran squealing into the bedroom section of Sal’s apartment.

“Oh, no! Don’t go in there!” Sal despaired. “It’s the only room you haven’t destroyed!”

I had hoped to find sanctuary in the bathroom. But before I could shut the door and lock them out, they soared in like tiny fighter jets and started dropping little bombs on me. I jumped up and down swinging my fists at them. They stayed effectively out of reach. I raged uselessly as hummingbird crap rained down on me, then I spun to a crouch and jerked open the cabinet door under the sink.

Aha! I grabbed a bottle of cleaning ammonia. Instantly half the hummers broke formation, forsaking the aerial assault to form an opposition to force me away from the cabinet. I managed to snag a jug of Clorox before the sword-beaks won. I charged out of the bathroom, back through the den where Sal lay sobbing softly and into the kitchen again with kamikazes hot on my tail.

They thought they had me on the run.

I grabbed a bowl of fruit from the counter, dumped the fruit, and dashed into the den with the remaining hummers in hot pursuit. I dropped to my knees in the center of the room, fumbled the cap off the ammonia and poured a fair amount into the bowl. While hummers dive-bombed me from above and applied sophisticated knowledge of bayonet usage from below, I wrenched the cap off the jug of Clorox.

Dammit! It had never been opened. It was sealed tight with one of those seals it takes a pocketknife to break. Screaming like a karate master, I stabbed it with an acrylic thumbnail, ripped the seal away, and splashed bleach into the bowl with the ammonia.

The resultant fumes hit me immediately. My nose started running. So did my eyes. I coughed and gagged and fumbled to my feet, backing way from the bowl.

“My eyes!” Sal wailed. “They’re burning! They’re burning!”

With their maniacally fast metabolisms, the gas was hitting the hummers hard. The ceiling fan helped disperse the noxious gas through the room, and I knew Sal and I didn’t have much time. I stumbled into the bathroom, grabbed a couple of washcloths, and soaked them with tap water. I held one over my mouth and nose. It helped me to breathe easier and so I hurried the other one out to Sal.

“Ahgh! No! Keep away!” he screamed, flinging his hands across his face when I tried to help him.

“It’s a wet washcloth, Sal! You need to breathe through this!”

I practically had to stuff it up his nose before I got him to hold it in place. I held my own washcloth to my face with one hand, hooked my other arm across his chest and under his arms, and dragged him out to the balcony and fresh air. I dropped him with a thud and closed the balcony door. Covered in sweat, blood, and hummingbird crap, panting with exhaustion, coughing sporadically as my lungs tried to clear themselves, I peered in through the glass as the last of the hummingbirds descended slowly into death.

“Wow, Sal, that was really something,” I said between ragged breaths.

Puzzled by his lack of response, I turned to check on him. He had curled into a fetal position, rocking gently as he sucked his thumb. He was making these weird mewling noises. I figured he was upset because I hadn’t given him his chance to really commit suicide.

I seem to have gained some notoriety from this event. It took a couple hours for my lawyer to get me out of jail for what Sal claimed was vandalism, destruction of personal property, assault with intent to inflict bodily harm, assault with intent to kill, and I don’t know what other kinds of charges. Upon finally being released, I found the press hanging around outside the courthouse waiting for me. Everyone wanted an interview! The local newspapers, the TV stations, the radio stations. The interview with Trent West from ZRock 109 might be fun; he’s kind of cute. I might even become famous!

I finally managed to break free of the microphones and cameras and reporters-in-my-face and go home, where I called my friends and told them all about it. They’re calling me “Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer.”

You know, I sort of like that. Do you think it will stick?

 

Champagne and Balducci’s

Champagne

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

Real trees didn’t dance in kitchens or anywhere else, so what the hell was going on now? Just five feet away from Warren Lund, a scrawny redwood sapling pirouetted on root tips as though the New York City Ballet had opened a show in Fangorn Forest. The tree wiggled outstretched branches, split its lower trunk to form two timber legs and leaped in his direction.

Warren dodged sideways. The envelopes he held scattered like broken crackers tossed to pigeons. His shoulder hit the refrigerator hard. His dinner sack thumped against the floor. The tree vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke, as though on stage. A whiff of fresh evergreen lingered.

This prank had to be his roommate’s doing. Arlo, a dancer and magician, was warped. Okay, where had he hidden? The pantry?

But Arlo had boarded a plane three days ago, had even said not to call except in dire emergency. Arlo had too much on his plate to sneak back to Manhattan for a gag. Sweat dripped off the tip of Warren’s long, narrow nose. His damp T-shirt clung to his chest. Another poof and the kitchen filled with lemon-yellow vapor. Who—or what—would he find when the air cleared? Tolkien’s Treebeard or Harry Potter?

The smoke dissipated, revealing a gaunt figure hunched over a three-ring binder, sitting on a wooden stool. The man bore a deadpan expression, like a crafty poker player dealt four aces. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth and shed ashes on his black pants and V-necked sweater. Why, this was Warren’s boyhood idol—Bob Fosse.

No way Fosse could have stolen into Warren’s apartment. The renowned director, choreographer and Broadway icon had died over twenty years ago, in 1987. Ghosts—like dancing saplings—existed only in the realm of fantasy. Warren would figure out a reasonable explanation for all this… wouldn’t he?

He rubbed his sore shoulder and glanced at the clock. Two hours before midnight. He had gotten off work at nine, after an ordinary humid July day. Ordinary, that is, until he had returned home, fetched the mail and flipped on his kitchen light. Fosse glanced up, as though in rehearsal for Chicago or Damn Yankees.

“You call yourself a dancer?” Fosse said. “You’ll never land a job on a Broadway stage at the rate you’re going, other than to push a broom. You barely made the chorus of an off- Broadway flop.”

An unruly lock of Warren’s curly black hair hung in front of his eyes. He ought to defend himself but Fosse had pegged the problem. It was time to return to California and become an accountant. Meet the right woman. Get a life. Warren stammered a lame remark, more syllables of sounds than words.

“That’s not good enough.” Fosse peered over the top of his granny glasses and shifted position. “I want more.” A column of beige smoke oozed up from the base of the stool. The icon’s image faded.

A husky, melodious voice called out Warren’s name. What now? A thin young woman with long legs stood in the kitchen doorway, her right leg raised high in a vertical split, toes pointed and ankle at brow level. A maroon leotard and tights, as taut as skin, hugged her petite curves. Where had she come from? Thick cocoa-brown hair draped her shoulders with sensual waves.

“It’s been two weeks since you’ve gone for a jazz class and three since you’ve hit the gym,” she said, still perfectly balanced. “Bet you’d tear a muscle if you tried this.”

How did she know what he did or didn’t do? Warren pressed his back against the refrigerator, studying her wide blue-gray eyes. They looked soft enough to melt. The mixed fragrances of Christmas trees and expensive perfume wafted to his nose.

“Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“A space alien.” She morphed into a pulsing gelatinous mass—an enormous fluorescent green blob with three maraschino cherry eyes. “Remember when you were seventeen and auditioned for that academy? They told you to pretend to be a bowl of lime Jell-O. If only you’d quivered more.”

A pressure surged within Warren’s head and throttled his temples. The lime Jell-O blurred with the scattered envelopes on the floor. He sank to his knees. Something was seriously wrong. Drugs! Some street wacko could have dusted the mailbox with crack or methamphetamine. Verizon had disconnected Warren’s cell phone yesterday for nonpayment. He crawled toward the living room and Arlo’s land line telephone. What was the number for Poison Control? Or had the government discontinued that service? It didn’t matter. The phone was gone.

The Jello-O giggled with a musical sound and sprouted two maroon-clad legs. “I’m not really from outer space. Now, it’s your turn to do an improvisation.” She balanced on the balls of her feet and rocked from side-to-side, like a metronome on slow speed. “Pretend you’re a ripe avocado or a rotting pear.”

Warren, still on his hands and knees, parted his lips, unable to speak. Nobody knew about his recurring nightmare—being backstage at the Ambassador Theater on Forty- Ninth Street, dressed in an avocado costume with a jammed zipper. Gene Kelly always belted out “Singing in the Rain” from a lamppost in the audience. Fosse always shouted for Warren to get on stage and be a pear.

The mustard-yellow sofa with the flattened cushions drifted in and out of focus. Warren hadn’t eaten much since six in the morning. Food might help. He crawled back into the kitchen and enlisted the support of the stove to stand. The woman in maroon opened the cabinet under the sink and tossed his white plastic sack into the garbage.

“That’s my dinner,” Warren protested.

Was your dinner.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and extracted one of the eight-by-ten glossy photos Warren handed out at auditions. She scrunched her face, then turned the picture upside-down.

“Know what this headshot says about you?”

He stared at the lackluster image with the dark complexion, boxy jaw and phony smile. The faint crinkles below its eyes suggested an older age, maybe forty instead of twenty-eight. He massaged his throbbing temples. What was he supposed to reply? That he was black-and-white, tired, and worked for cheap?

“This man,” the woman said, “eats disgusting leftover falafel from a fast-food hole-in-the-wall and lets balsamic vinegar the color of crankcase oil dribble down his arms.” She tapped the tip of her first finger against the photograph.

“I happen to like balsamic on my falafel,” Warren said. “And what do you expect on my income? Champagne and caviar?”

There was nothing wrong with the occupational perk of free food, even if it came from a third-rate restaurant. Okay, he danced rotten. But what right had she to bust into the apartment and pick apart his entire life?

“I can’t afford crab cakes from Balducci’s,” he snapped.

His stomach gurgled as he pictured the wheels and pie-shaped wedges of pungent imported cheeses in Balducci’s. The crusts on the fresh loaves of bread always looked so crisp. A sharp bite might make them shatter.

“It’s time you improved your image and got a real job,” the woman said. Her eyes crinkled to disapproving little slits, like lopsided sections of miniature Venetian blinds. “You can’t mooch off Arlo forever.”

“You think I like living this way?” The warmth of mixed embarrassment and anger spread across Warren’s cheeks.

He glanced at a framed portrait of Arlo in the vestibule, taken by Jason Leigh, one of Manhattan’s finest photographers. Arlo could act, sing or dance his way across any stage as though he owned it. He had just left for a three-month gig in Las Vegas—had even arranged to lease a pricey mid-town apartment upon his return. The photo radiated the image of his growing success.

Warren sat on the vinyl floor and drew his knees toward his chest. What was he doing, carrying on an argument with some phantom dredged from the depths of his own screwed-up mind? He smelled evergreen and recalled an audition for a school play in the third grade. He had wanted the role of John Muir but had been cast as a redwood tree. His hands tensed.

The woman in maroon did a slow horizontal split and landed. She stretched her torso forward until her elbows pivoted against the floor. Her palms rested under her chin.

“Poor dear,” she said, “you were mortified. Muir was manly, the epitome of the rugged mountaineer. And you had to stand at the rear of the stage for twenty whole minutes, decked out in cheap cardboard and waving two funky plastic branches, while some overconfident creep you despised stole the show.”

“I’m dying.” Warren buried his face in his hands. “That’s the only explanation.”

“No, you’re not,” she said. “I abhor trite endings.”

The woman stood and snapped her fingers. She wore a black tuxedo now, complete with gold studs and a rose silk cummerbund. She slung a soiled dishtowel over one arm, with a grand gesture, and opened the refrigerator door.

“My stage name’s Velvet Skye. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Among other things, the specialty of the house includes champagne, caviar and crab cakes from Balducci’s.”

Velvet transferred a plaid liquor sack and a green-and-white shopping bag to the kitchen counter. Warren inventoried the array of delicacies—crispy Roman artichokes and chocolate torte, even buckwheat blinis for the Beluga. The food looked so good.

“The crab cakes are cooked,” she said. “You don’t mind if we nuke them, do you?”

“That… that’s fine.”

He touched the neck of the bottle of chilled Mumm’s with the tip of his first finger. The vessel neither imploded nor vanished in a puff of smoke. He crinkled the edge of a paper wrapper. The wrapper seemed real, too.

“Set the table, or do I have to do everything?” Velvet laughed—a musical laugh, as clear as the tinkle of a glass bell. “Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in years.”

Warren pinched the skin on his forearm. Nothing worse than momentary discomfort resulted. He grabbed a sponge from under the sink and mopped off the gummy metal top of the nearby card table. He frowned, then rummaged through a drawer. A clean towel would have to do for a tablecloth. He washed two mismatched plates, some stainless steel utensils and a couple of ten-ounce plastic tumblers. Arlo hated to shop for housewares.

Warren folded paper towels for napkins. Blue-and-crimson lights flickered across them, like the images of flames in mirrors. He held linen now, not paper, and faced a mahogany table set with sterling silver, gold-rimmed champagne flutes and china. Velvet tilted each flute and filled the sparkling crystal with Mumm’s.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is the pattern on the Wedgwood too busy?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong.” He swallowed hard, as though trying to clear a lump of meat from a dry throat. Nothing was wrong at all, in a way.

Velvet spread caviar on several buckwheat pancakes the size of silver dollars. She added dollops of sour cream and slid one of the appetizers into his mouth. The mild tang of the blini and cream muted the stronger but pleasing flavors of salt and fish. Warren chewed in slow motion. She had just transformed paper into linen and metal into mahogany. What the hell was he really eating—stale raisin bran and lumpy outdated milk?

“Table setting’s a fake but the food’s real,” she said, as though she had read his mind. She licked her fingers and tapped her crystal flute against his. “Your tax dollars at work. I walked into Balducci’s and the nearest liquor store this afternoon, projected the persona of our dear mayor and charged this whole damn meal to the City.”

Warren chuckled. She was outrageous—totally, wonderfully outrageous. He broke into unrestrained guffaws. Velvet laughed with him, her eyes sparkling like sapphires reflecting shafts of sunlight. Perhaps he was eating raisin bran. He didn’t really care.

After dinner, he and Velvet stood by the open bedroom window, against the backdrop of a wrought iron railing and a graveyard for cigarette butts. They did cold readings of dialogues by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. She closed the book and grasped his hand. They sat on his futon and listened to the honks and brake squeals of taxis navigating a Manhattan summer’s night.

“The theater’s a mistress,” she said. “But…”

Warren didn’t hear the rest. She toyed with his curly black hair, twisting the longer strands around her slender fingers. He cupped his hands around her petite breasts, her skin softer than clouds.

They made love on Arlo’s double bed, dancing an ancient dance on white sheets as though every movement had been choreographed anew. Velvet was Eve, Juliet, Helen of Troy—then Delilah afire. She ignited her Samson until his strength was consumed. A warm breeze slipped through the window, too humid to evaporate sweat from sticky flesh. A phantom light from the outside world played on the ceiling. Warren stroked Velvet from her head to her toes, afraid she might vanish.

* * * * *

Warren awakened to the annoying pulse of his digital alarm clock. Daylight streamed through the window. Morning was here. Velvet wasn’t. He called for her several times. Perhaps she was hiding, playing another game. He checked under the bed and dug through the closet. Had she turned herself into a piece of clothing or an umbrella? Warren sniffed Arlo’s leather jacket and inspected a polished loafer.

He stumbled toward the kitchen. Where was she? He noticed the cabinet doors under the sink, ajar, and flung them open. The shopping bag from Balducci’s was tucked inside of the plastic garbage pail, beside the empty champagne bottle. The trash smelled of Christmas trees. The aroma faded. Warren slumped to the floor, cradled the pail in his arms and cried.

The telephone rang. Velvet? Warren scrambled to reach the phone, hoping to hear her laugh. The male voice on the other end was effeminate and unmistakable—his agent, Larry. Warren tried to conceal his disappointment.

“I just lined up an audition,” Larry said. “Next Friday morning at ten sharp.”

Warren opened a drawer and grabbed a pencil and pad. Of course, he wouldn’t get a private audition. He never did.

“Another cattle call?”

“One for blue ribbon stock,” Larry gloated. “We’re talking best of Fosse.”

The new restaging of Fosse’s most spectacular musical numbers? The show scheduled to open soon? The pace of Warren’s heartbeats quickened.

“You mean,” Warren said, “on Broadway?”
“Well, I don’t mean the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen, an unexpected slot turned up. Not principal, but good. I talked you up big, okay? Said Bob Fosse was your idol and you could dance his routines in your sleep. The Broadhurst at ten—no, nine-thirty’s safer. And, for godsakes, don’t let me down and dance sloppy, or my reputation’s dead meat.”

The phone call ended. This was the potential break—the big one—and Warren had skipped jazz class for two weeks and dropped his membership at the gym. His credit cards were maxed. His headshot looked stupid. An eighteen-wheel truck might as well flatten him right now. Warren pounded his fist on the counter and swore. His dream girl had just gone virtual unreality and now this.

Warren needed coffee. He brewed the last of the house blend he had filched from the restaurant. Flashbacks of Velvet blazed through his memory like fireworks in a cloudless night sky. Could even a wacked-out imagination create a fantasy that real? The weak coffee tasted lousy. He downed it anyway and decided to audition.

Warren piled his meager supply of cash on the kitchen table and found his checkbook. It would take money to make money. He hunted through Arlo’s closet and dresser drawers, unearthing a MasterCard, two fifties, seven tens and a dozen twenties. Arlo’s money went on the left side of the table. His own stayed on the right. Warren put on his leotard and sweats, stuffed thirty right-side dollars into his pocket and caught the subway uptown.

The dance studio occupied the third floor. He plunked down the fee on the registration table and signed in. The instructor was new. At least the guy wouldn’t make any cute remarks about why Warren kept missing class. Warren cut to the rear of the room to warm up muscles stiffened from neglect. The ninety-minute ordeal seemed endless.

* * * * *

The next morning, Warren felt like a hood ornament after a head-on collision. He soaked in a hot bath. It didn’t help. His dancing sucked. He’d totally blow the audition. Larry would dump his portfolio into the East River.

He mushed some stale raisin bran with water. Arlo’s portrait seemed to watch his every move. Arlo had said not to call except in an emergency, would go postal if Warren woke him up to beg for money. Warren slurped down breakfast. How could he afford new shots? He covered Arlo’s photo with a dishtowel and checked the listings of photographers in the phone book. His guts ached, as though two hands twisted them. He’d never stolen money before.

It was Sunday. After jazz class, Warren headed for the Jason Leigh Studio near Grand Central Station. The steel gate was open but the place looked dark. He prayed and turned the knob. The door creaked open.

The proprietor’s bell tinkled with an old-fashioned sound, straight out of a Forties flick. Warren stood motionless in the doorway. A balding man wearing narrow-rimmed glasses emerged from the back room. His tight black turtleneck and jeans accentuated his broad shoulders and flat gut. The diamond stud embedded in the lobe of his left ear glittered. The man matched Arlo’s vague description of Jason Leigh. He coughed as though he smoked too much and cleared his throat. An air-conditioning unit, wedged in a small window above the front door, rattled.

“I need a decent headshot,” Warren said. “At least two copies by Thursday night.”

“Are you kidding?” Jason flipped through the appointment book on the counter. “I can’t even guarantee a shoot by then.”

“You did as much for Arlo Brandon last year,” Warren said, unsure if the guy would wink or throw him out.

Jason’s gaze shifted, obviously scrutinizing Warren from head to toe. Warren fidgeted with the lower edge of his sweatshirt. He dug out Arlo’s credit card and two fifty-dollar bills.

“I’ve got an important audition Friday morning,” Warren said. “The shot I’ve got won’t do. And Arlo claims you’re the best photographer around.”

Jason removed his glasses and rubbed his right eye. He squinted at the lenses, then eradicated a smudge with a linen handkerchief. Would he agree?

“You just can’t charge something to somebody else’s account. I don’t know you from beans.”

Warren offered his California driver’s license. Maybe he should have phoned Arlo. Too late, now. The photographer studied the license in the light from a goose-necked lamp. He ran his finger across the hologram of Warren’s picture and the State of California seal. He inspected the two fifties. Probably thought they might be counterfeit. Jason smoothed back the thinning black hair on the sides of his head, then gestured toward the back room.

“Put on the white polo shirt at the front of the rack,” Jason said. “Let me do your makeup, though.” The air conditioner seemed to rattle louder. “If you’ve stolen that card—if you’re lying—you won’t perform for anyone in New York again. Understand?”

Warren understood all too well.

* * * * *

Warren returned to the photographer’s on Thursday at three o’clock. The studio was dark, its steel gate locked. Where was Jason? Warren needed those new shots for the audition tomorrow. He rattled the bars and pounded his fists against the sun-warmed metal. Two middle-aged women in chinos and floppy blouses walked by and stared.

“You don’t have to bust my place in,” a voice said.

Warren faced the photographer. Jason frowned, the skin on his forehead as rutted as a ploughed field. He set a small paper sack on the pavement and dug a single key out of the side pocket of his white Dockers.

“I skipped lunch to finish your pictures,” Jason said. “A man has to eat.”

Warren’s mouth froze in neutral gear. A taxi driver wearing a turban wove his cab through traffic, leaning on the horn. A pigeon flapped by and landed on a discarded donut. Was Warren the only New Yorker who didn’t express himself worth a damn or know where he was headed?

Jason rolled the gate aside. He motioned Warren over to the counter and disappeared into the back room. He emerged carrying several eight-by-ten glossy photos stacked on a sheet of white mounting board.

“This is the real you,” he said. “I mean, if you ever grow up and calm down.”

Warren focused on the image of a soul in black and white. The eyes in the photo looked alert and sensual—almost alive. The lips were slightly parted, curved in a natural smile. The overall combination radiated artistic sensitivity… success.

“How can I ever thank you?” Warren’s tongue felt thick, as though he’d been drinking.

The photographer placed seven photos into a shallow nine-by-twelve-inch cardboard box. He rested his hand atop Warren’s, his palm warm.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jason said. His voice sounded genuine and kind. “You’re prettier than Arlo but you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Warren returned to the apartment. He left the box of photos on the living room sofa and hit the sack by nine. His brain chanted the photographer’s advice like a television set blaring an obnoxious commercial. Warren listened to the sounds of traffic for two hours. His leg muscles ached. He stumbled toward the kitchen to down his last three Advil.

One of his new headshots sat on the kitchen counter. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood as though spray-painted in position. The image of his eyes sparkled with an intense crimson light. Warren blinked. The light vanished. The room spun. He awakened in Arlo’s bed at sunrise. What the hell had happened the night before?

* * * * *

Warren arrived at the Broadhurst Theater at nine-thirteen. The shocking-pink lettering on a promotional poster challenged him from behind a brass-framed plate of glass: Sexy! Hot! Go! He stepped onto the green-and-white floor tiles in the foyer, his tongue daubed with a metallic taste. Apprehension always wacked his taste buds before an audition. He glanced up at a crystal chandelier, then entered the main theater and stretched his muscles to prepare for the test.

A thin, sandy-haired man with a clipboard set up a card table near the front row of seats. Warren signed a roster, filled out a card and placed his headshot on the table.

Eight other men arrived and registered, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Several limbered their legs. A chestnut-skinned man with a stubby ponytail stripped down to his black leotard and tights. He practiced the splits in the center aisle, his thighs taut, and his movements smoother than a Teflon-coated zipper.

“You look terriff, Barry,” a dancer with one pierced ear said, obviously trying to ease the surrounding competitive tension.

Warren’s stomach churned, as though he was about to drill his own teeth. The other guys all seemed to know each other. They probably attended classes together or had worked some of the same shows. Only one person in Warren’s jazz class was employed as a dancer—the instructor. Warren exercised his feet and calves with a therapeutic stretch band. These guys looked so damned professional. What chance had he to get the part?

A high-pitched feminine voice drew Warren’s attention. A willowy brunette in stretchy white slacks strode down the center aisle toward the stage, accompanied by a man in his forties, probably a choreographer. They sat in the second row of seats. The brunette crossed her legs. A teal polyester blouse clung to her flat chest. The man with the clipboard handed her the stack of glossy prints, then turned toward the assembled group. He rattled off a string of instructions for the dancers. Each would cross the stage one at a time for a warm-up, doing steps from “Steam Heat,” a Fifties showstopper—sexy, smooth, precise and classic Fosse.

Warren and the others lined up single file by height in the wing at stage right. At five-foot-eleven, he stood third from the rear of the line. He breathed in, mentally counting to four. He counted to four again and exhaled. If only Warren were two inches taller, he’d go last.

The first man in line, the Barry guy, danced across the stage sideways, on his knees, facing his audience of three. Both his hands clutched an imaginary bowler. His arms—and the hat that wasn’t—drew a large, continuous circle in the air as he moved. Warren could almost hear the click of an advancing locomotive’s wheel against steel rail. No way for Warren to beat that.

Barry reached the opposite wing, stood and gave his name. The second dancer crossed the stage. The third. The fourth… Warren’s turn arrived. His heart pounded like a lead drummer high on drugs. Then the image of Bob Fosse, clothed in black, appeared in the opposite wing. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice. Fosse pushed a derby down over his brow and gestured toward center stage.

“Get out there,” Fosse called. He took a long, hard drag on a fresh cigarette while he stubbed the butt of the previous one in a translucent bucket of sand. “Be me and give it all.”

The theater darkened. Beams from twin spotlights pierced the blackness. Their golden pools hit center stage and flared. Velvet posed statue-still in the far beam, her sequined crimson tuxedo glittering like a chain reaction of light.

Warren’s skin tingled at the sight of Velvet. Was she truly there? She faced him, her knees bent and legs apart. Her pelvis rocked with sensuous thrusts. The red bowler in her right hand accentuated the suggestive rhythm. Her eyes glistened, pupils sparkling like two ruby sequins.

“Come on,” Velvet called to him. “Get hot.”

She belted out one of yesterday’s songs, as though she could be heard and seen by all—as though her song resonated fresh and new. Even her verbal mechanical sound effects, her banging-on-the radiator clicks and steam hisses, swelled fresh and new.

Warren moved onto the stage—cool, slow, sharp and very Fosse. Velvet might vanish in a minute, but for now she was vibrant and real. The center spots blazed red. She switched the step. Warren did, too. He entered the crimson beam beside hers.

They danced side-by-side across the other half of the He stage, under the hot lights. The mingled odors of woman, sweat and redwood permeated Warren’s nose, mouth and mind. Just short of the wing, Warren called out his name, facing a standing ovation from the packed house that wasn’t. He was Fosse, Arlo Brandon, John Muir—everything he’d ever dreamed.

The rest of the audition simply happened. Nine male dancers faced their critical audience of three. No one actually told Warren, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” No one had to. Warren read the expression in the choreographer’s eyes. Barry would get the part.

* * * * *

Warren walked away from the Broadhurst, the pack containing his dance gear against his back. He let the hot, wet midday air numb his feelings as it sapped his strength. He passed a closed theater. A cardboard-and-newspaper bed blocked the boarded-up stage doors. Was that his fate?

A sidewalk vendor hawked rice and kabobs. The smells of grease and chicken nauseated Warren. Water flowed along hosed-down gutters. He purchased a bottle of Crystal Geyser and sat on the stairs leading to the subway downtown.

He should have hunched his shoulders more during the audition and snapped his fingers less. His movements should have been more angular and clear. Warren gulped down the cool water, as though the liquid might evaporate. He fished a subway token from his pocket, hoping Larry, his agent, wouldn’t call today.

The stifling underground station appeared unusually empty. Warren mopped his forehead and gazed down at the tracks, then into the blackness of the bore. He had stolen Arlo’s money, couldn’t pay it back. The rumble of an approaching train drew him closer to the edge of the platform. He could smell the stink of his own sweat. The rumble intensified. A yellow ball of light hung in the tunnel, like a coastal beacon in the fog. His left foot inched into the void.

“I abhor trite endings,” a voice said.

Startled, Warren teetered backwards to safety. The train emerged from the darkness. His heart pounded. What the hell had he almost done?

“The theater’s a mistress,” the voice said, “but she demands all and belongs to all.”

Warren recognized the voice now. The words and inflection were Velvet’s. The voice was his own. He boarded the train and slumped in an empty seat, struggling to solve the intangible puzzle of Velvet’s identity. A boom box thumped rap ten feet away. A swarm of squealing kids buzzed into the car at the next station and out, two stations later. The train picked up speed again and swayed. Who was she? His inner self or some sort of muse? Nothing made sense.

Warren stepped off the subway and climbed the stairs toward daylight. A humid draught hit his face and a sharp click caught his attention. A translucent image of Fosse, holding a leather case, stood on the sidewalk. The gaunt icon lit a cigarette, coughed, and opened the case.

“You almost killed yourself down there,” Fosse said. “If you really want to dare the Devil, do it right, the way I did.” He offered three plastic vials of pills in his outstretched palm. “Poppers, Dexamil, Seconal, everything you need.”

The world undulated around Warren, cold as a dead halibut packed in ice. A ruby-red neon arrow flickered across the street, pointing toward the parking lot below. He smelled evergreen, then dug his hands into his pants pockets and walked away from Fosse’s image.

* * * * *

The telephone rang an hour later in the apartment. Larry must be calling. Warren should admit failure and accept the consequences.

“I know you didn’t get the part,” Larry said. He sounded as wound-up as a coil of wire humming with electricity. “Hey, sit down if you aren’t already. Madison and Moore—that hot new ad agency—wants you to do a commercial.”

“What gives?” Warren hadn’t auditioned for any commercial in months.

“Christine Phillips—one of their managers called,” Larry said. “Her younger sister was at the audition this morning. Christine wants to meet you Monday at eleven and offer a contract. To do a wacky commercial for the next Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl?” Had he misheard?

“A beer commercial,” Larry gloated. “Something woodsy with a tree dancing a pseudo-Fosse routine. Christine’s sister swears you’d be perfect. Claims she saw you on stage and could even smell pines.”

Warren’s elementary school play. The message hit as though a giant sequoia had crashed-landed beside him. The whole blasted country would watch him dance—and he’d be a damned tree? What would they have him do, hand Mean Joe Green a can of carbonated sap? Warren stifled the urge to deliver a sarcastic quip.

“That’s fantastic,” Warren said. “What’s the address?”

Warren hung up the phone five minutes later and burst into unrestrained laughter. Life had typecast him as a tree. He pretended to wave two funky plastic branches at the choreographer, Barry Ryan and the brunette in the teal blouse. He did the splits, his arms raised in mock triumph.

“Warren Lund,” he announced, “a dancer who puts his best root forward. A redwood for all seasons.” He laughed a hard, bitter laugh. “The theater demands all and delivers squat.”

Warren inhaled the odor of an old wooden stage sprinkled with sawdust. Images of him and Velvet dancing “Steam Heat” flipped through his mind. He recalled his own voice reciting her words with her inflection. He turned a mental key. Velvet had known he wouldn’t get the Broadway part. She had inspired him to dance his best for the brunette—the Phillips woman. Had somehow convinced the brunette to hire him. Why hadn’t he seen the whole truth before? Velvet really was a muse yet so much more—a little bit of him, Fosse and Broadway.

Warren rested his palms against the smooth vinyl floor. An ache of loneliness seared his mind and soul. The feeling retreated to the pit of his stomach and gnawed with the blunt teeth of emotional distress. Velvet didn’t belong to him and never could. She belonged to art, was the substance and illusion of theatrical art.

The front door opened with the sound of rushing wind. Velvet appeared in a puff of crimson stage smoke. The shopping bag she clutched bore the green-and-white Balducci’s logo. She uttered a strained giggle, then pinched her lips between her front teeth. Warren turned away. Should he order her to leave or beg her to stay?

“The theater could use a few good trees,” she said.

Velvet opened a bottle of champagne. The cork bounced off the kitchen ceiling. She jabbered about imported cheeses and beer commercials, her words all strung together, as though her voice were a recording played at high speed. She twisted a lock of her cocoa-brown hair around her slender fingers and laughed.

 

If I Could Take You With Me

by Yancey Malachi Cates

 

A young girl stands on a train platform. She is waiting for a train that will never come. The hour is well past for it’s arrival and she knows the engineer is a stickler for promptness. He has a timetable to meet and it’s the whole of his existence, he would never be late unless… And so another train, an eastbound train, not a western train, like the one she is waiting for, roars past, it doesn’t even slow as it approaches, it has no business with the likes of us.

Her train will not come and she knows this. And so she steps out in the path of the on-rushing velocity, the impact is sudden and stunning and it’s done.

I weep, and eventually Arn puts his hand on my shoulder, asks me what is wrong. I shake him off, wipe my face… I hadn’t seen him walk up, I was enthralled with the pretty, strawberry-haired girl with the huge blue eyes made red with her sadness.

The station is small, almost unused. Amtrak only stops here when I buy a ticket to New York. I’d been alone here for several hours, Arn and I got our signals crossed and he wasn’t here to meet me. I was returning from Paris, my weeks with my daughter Jasmine, who was showing her first signs of womanhood. I’d taken the train to New York then a plane to Paris, and when my trip is over, I’d do it all in reverse. The train relaxes me, it’s my favorite way to travel.

I came back a day late, stealing that day with Jasmine to wander the Louvre and talk about nothing in my favorite company. When I called Arn to explain, the overseas connection failed us and Arn thought I was coming in much later then I actually was. And so I sat in the darkness of the rural night, a million stars watching me, wishing I’d recharged my cell phone on the train.

The girl and I waited alone together, each lost in our own painful reveries. At first I mistook her for a member of the living, and we waited in silence together. I didn’t think, in this day and age, a woman alone would want to talk to a stranger in a lonely corner of the world. But as my eyes attuned to the darkness, I realized that what I had thought was fog swirling lightly around her was the halo of the deceased and I knew what she was.

I decided to speak.

“I’m Yancey,” I offered. Her shoulders stiffened with a little trepidation and I waited.

“Pansy,” she replied, her polite Southern upbringing overriding the situation. It always does in all of us. A Southerner will offer a polite “how do you do” to a man with blood on his face before he runs away screaming murder. It’s just how things are done.

The stars became brighter, more luminous and I knew I’d moved into the magic of my gift. All things happen for a reason, at least in my life.

“Who are you waiting for?” I asked, trying to sound casual. I didn’t want to frighten her.

“My husband, John Earl Hambry,” she said, a swell of pride in her voice. She was a newlywed, I could tell from the tone. “He went to Charleston on business.”

“How long have you been waiting?” I asked. I needed to know if she understood that she was dead. Ghosts have no sense of time and this troubles them.

“Seems like forever,” she said, with dismay in her voice. She turned to face me, I guess she’d decided I was harmless.

“You don’t know how long you’ve been married either, do you?” I asked. I’ve had this conversation a hundred times in my life.

She shifted nervously from foot to foot and finally turned away from me. I could tell she might suspect I could answer all those questions she’d so long avoided, but she wasn’t quite ready. I waited, gave her time.

“The train never seems to come,” she finally sighed.

“Not many people take the train these days,” I responded, and she looked at me.

“I’m so cold,” she offered and I stood, took off my coat and wrapped it gently around her shoulders. I held it in place to make sure she had the corporeal energy to hold it herself. “Thank you. This place is always too quiet. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.” I nodded, smiled at her. “You’re a handsome young man. Are you married?”

“Widower.”

“What a shame. I’m truly sorry. And so young. I think if anything happened to John Earl…”

“You’d kill yourself?” She looked at me with large, blue eyes, haunted eyes. “Truth is, you did. There’s a story around here about the Ghost of Pansy Hambry. Seems she married the man of her dreams and he went away, on a business trip. The train was late, and Pansy decided there was a train wreck and John wouldn’t be coming home, so she threw herself under a train. And some nights, if you go to the station in the evening, you can see her ghost, waiting for the train.” She didn’t take her eyes off me, she stared and didn’t move. My coat fell to the platform, she no longer had the energy to hold it. “What she didn’t know was that there was a train wreck, a huge train wreck and John was injured but he didn’t die. He never remarried and some nights, they say, he still comes here hoping to catch a glimpse of her.” I reached out and touched her cheek, it was icy.

“Are you saying I’m dead?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, that is just the craziest thing…” She turned back to the tracks.

“Pansy!” I heard a voice call and turned; an old man had appeared. He was standing near the station, barely visible against the white clapboard. He was a ghost, too and she turned, saw him. He looked old, very old, and he had the weak signal of a newly made ghost.

“Who are you?” she asked, troubled, confused.

“It’s me, Pansy. It’s John!” He was getting weaker, transitioning to the next place.

“My John is young and handsome!” The tears touched her cheeks again…

“It’s been a lot of years. Come with me Pansy! Come with me! I don’t have much time.”

“YOU’RE NOT MY JOHN!!!” she screamed, putting her hands over her ears and closing her eyes.

I watched him, the look of horror on his face. He looked at her, I could tell he wanted to come to her but he couldn’t. He had to go.

“Go with him,” I said. She moved to the edge of the platform to put some distance between us. “You’re just stubborn!” I said and walked back to my bench.

He faded then, she didn’t turn to look at him. He changed, got younger—if only I could have made her look at him but I was locked out.

“Is he gone?” she said, finally.

“Yes.”

“That wasn’t my John.”

“It was. And you’ve lost him again. Here’s a piece of friendly advice. In a few years, I don’t know how many, an angel will come for you. Go with it. End this.”

She nodded sadly and turned back. I heard the phantom train on the tracks barreling for us. She cast me a look and smiled.

“Come see me again?” she asked.

“Of course. Nobody should be alone…”

“I wish I could see the world just once more. All I’ll ever see again is this…”

“If I could take you with me…”

“That’s what all the boys say.” And she turned and fell, like an angel from the walls of heaven into the path of the train.

I turned back to Arn. “I just met Pansy Hambry,” I said.

“Odd. I just came from the hospital. John Earl was real sick and they didn’t…” He looked at me and I shook my head.

“John Earl passed about a half hour ago,” I said.

Arn nodded. He sat beside me.

“I take it she stayed.” He sighed. I nodded again.

“Well, Yancey, leastways she’s got us.” I grinned a little.

“Yeah,” I heard her voice on the wind. “At least I got you…”

“At the very least,” I agreed and Arn took me home.

 

Frank’s Boat

by Scott J. Holliday

 

The two girls must have come from the woods. I never saw or heard them until they were right next to me, standing underneath the yellow Road Ends sign staked in the grass at the dead-end. I was kneeling by the ditch, shoeless and shirtless, when I saw them. I wanted to run home and get dressed, but I didn’t because I knew they’d be gone when I got back.

I pulled my hands from the flowing water and stood. I had a boat—a newspaper section that I folded up and waxed—in one hand and a GI Joe in the other. GI Joe had been about to take a newspaper-boat ride in the ditch, but here were these girls. And here I was, a chubby kid playing with a doll.

They were wrinkle-nosed and pale. Freckle-faced girls. Flowery shirts and jean shorts. I felt like I’d seen them before. Maybe an old photograph? One wore pigtails, the other a ponytail. Obviously sisters. They stared at me for a long moment. I squirmed.

“Hi,” Pigtails finally said.

Ponytail smacked her arm and gave her a don’t-talk-to-him look. Pigtails made a pffft sound to her sister and said to me, “I’m Katie. This is Brenda. What’s your name?”

“My name’s Frank,” I said, careful not to say Franky. I hated it when girls called me that. I stuffed the GI Joe into the back-pocket of my cut-off corduroys. A week before they’d been full-length cords, brand new for school, but Danny Yolan pushed me down at the bus stop. I fell and the cords ripped at the knees. My mom sighed and cut them into shorts. Now I could wear them anytime.

I stuck out my hand to shake. Brenda rolled her eyes and I noticed they were bloodshot. Katie took my hand and shook it exactly once—up, down, release. Her hand was cold and pruney. It sent a shiver up my forearm, it got itchy and I had to scratch it.

“Whatcha doin’, Franky?” Katie said.

“Nothin’,” I said. And don’t call me Franky, I almost said. My scratching hand moved up to my elbow, crossing my arm over my gut to cover my chubbiness. My foot rolled nervously around. I was ten years old and ashamed of being fat. It was all the spaghetti sandwiches. “No girls are attracted to a fat kid,” my dad would say on spaghetti night, smacking my hand away from the loaf of garlic bread.

“You weren’t gonna float that boat?” Katie said.

“Nah,” I lied and put the boat behind my back, “I just found it laying here. I was gonna burn it.” It was the coolest thing I could come up with.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “We could have raced.” She pulled out a pinewood derby car with the lead weight taken out and the tires removed. It was all black with a red number four on each side.

I felt my eyes widen. It was my car. I thought I’d lost it. Two days before, the car had taken last place in the Annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Yesterday I stripped it and floated it down the ditch. It had thunderstormed the day of the derby, so yesterday the ditch water was deep and moving fast. Lots of crayfish and minnows. The car really cooked. I couldn’t catch up to it. It slid through a gap in the mesh cages over the mouths of the big culverts under Orchard Lake Road.

I could have crossed the road to catch the car on the other side, but crossing Orchard Lake was forbidden. Mom said that years ago some kids were killed crossing the road. “Mowed down by some maniac,” she said, then she stood there shaking her head.

“Where did you get that?” I asked Katie.

She just wiggled her nose and winked at me. I noticed her eyelid was bruised. She dropped to her knees and held the car in the gurgling water.

“You gonna race me or not?” she said.

I looked down at her feet. Weird, one of her shoes was missing. Her foot was tinted blue and black, calloused like it hadn’t been in a shoe in years. It looked cold and dead, like a detached body part in a Saturday Afternoon Thriller.

I looked at Brenda’s feet. Both were shoeless. I looked up. She was shaking her head, disapproving of her sister. When she moved her head it sort of rolled to one side, like there was something unhinged in her neck and she couldn’t keep her head straight.

The newspaper-boat would be no match for the derby car. The race would be a joke.

“Let’s do something better,” I said. “I know where there’s a stash of old orange juice cans in the woods back there.” I pointed to the woods past the field at the end of my road. A week before I’d discovered an abandoned trailer in the woods, right at the edge of McPherson’s swamp. It was filled with stacks of old newspapers and a crate of orange juice cans with sticky tabs that you peeled off. The tabs snapped when you got to the end; it was hard not to spill the juice. I declared the trailer to be my new fort and I’d left some of my stuff underneath it, including the sweatshirt my mom made me take with me. When I got home that day, my mom said I was stupid because I sat around making stuff out of newspapers and drinking orange juice until I got sick.

If I could get the girls to the trailer, I could put the sweatshirt on and cover up.

Brenda turned her head to follow my finger to the woods. I heard crack-crack-crack as her neck moved. Katie stood but didn’t look to where I was pointing. She kept her eyes on me. I could see her from the corner of my eye, watching me. I looked down and crossed my arm back over my gut.

“Cans like this one?” she said, and shoved a muddy can of orange juice into my line of vision. It was blue with a white bird on it, identical to those at my fort.

“Where did you get that?” I said.

“From that same trailer,” she said. “We were over there before we came here.”

Brenda turned back from the woods and looked at the can. She made a sucking sound through her teeth. I reached for the can, but she smacked it from her sister’s hand.

“What’d ya do that for?” Katie said. “I wasn’t gonna let him touch it!”

Brenda gave no response. She folded her arms across her tiny chest.

I bent down to pick up the can, but it wasn’t there. I looked left-right-left, no can. Where did it go?

I stood. The two girls were locked in a stare-down. Katie had her hands behind her back like she was hiding a candy bar.

The three of us stood silent for a moment.

“Where’s my car?” I finally said, trying to break the tension between them.

“You mean this?” Katie said, thrusting the car at me but holding her sister’s stare.

I reached out for my car but she pulled it back.

“You can’t touch it,” she said.

“Why not?” I said. “It’s mine.”

“Finders-Keepers.”

She was right. I’d lost it, and by rule it was hers. I played by the rules. I was the proud owner of a handle from a broken umbrella I found in the field last summer—currently it was at my fort with my sweatshirt. It was one of those that had a push-button to eject it and make it longer. The umbrella part was gone, but the handle was good for launching GI Joes and things. Should anyone make a claim to my umbrella handle, I was prepared to use Finders-Keepers.

“Are we gonna float boats or not?” Katie said, turning to me. Brenda smirked, happy to have won their stare-down.

“Okay,” I said, and knelt down to the ditch, fully aware that my gut looked extra fat when I knelt. Katie knelt down next to me and thrust her hand into the water, holding the derby car in place. I moved in and set the newspaper-boat in the water beside the derby car. Our arms touched. I closed my eyes to the sensation. It was the first time I’d ever touched a girl. She moved closer. Her ribs touched my back. I flinched. I opened my eyes to meet hers. She smiled, giggled.

Snap.

It was the sound of my umbrella handle ejecting. I turned back to see Brenda holding it up like a starter’s pistol.

“Go!” Katie said. She dropped the derby car, it sped away so fast that I never saw it. She was up and running down the dirt road.

I released the newspaper-boat and chased her. My feet stung as they pounded the rocks. The county maintenance trucks had graded the road that morning, it felt like I was running on spikes. Katie seemed unaffected. She was fast, way ahead of me already. It looked like the back of her head was covered in maggots. The current was fast, too, but it had slowed since yesterday and I was able to keep up with my boat despite the pain in my feet.

“You’re going too fast!” I called ahead to Katie, assuming she was way in front of the derby car.

I looked back to see if Brenda had kept up with us. She had. Her head bobbled to the side as she chased. She’d pushed the umbrella handle back into itself and was holding it out like a switchblade.

I checked the boats. The derby car was gone. It must have been really cooking. It would surely win the race, just as I thought. The newspaper-boat struggled along, bouncing and spinning off the ditch banks.

“C’mon,” I yelled at the newspaper-boat. Then I saw their faces in the folds of the paper. There they were, in black-and-white, along the top triangle of the boat. One wore pigtails, the other a ponytail. Grade school photos from picture day.

The boat spun in the current and their faces were gone again.

I looked up. Katie was no longer running, but waiting for me just past the driveway to my house. Hands on her hips, smiling wide. Her teeth were gone.

Brenda gained on me. How could the rocks not hurt her feet?

I looked back to my boat, it had spun again and their faces were back, smiling at the little birdie. The boat bounced off a rock and twisted back around. The headline above the two girls had been folded over to the other side. Only part of it was there. I read it.

Two Sisters Killed in Tragic—

Snap.

A round dot of cold metal stung my back.

“Gotcha!” Brenda said.

I turned and leapt over the ditch. My feet sunk into the mud on the other side. I jumped forward and popped my feet loose with a slurping sound. I rolled over my head and stood. Up and running again. My front yard. The grass was cool on my feet. No more sharp rocks.

I saw my mom standing behind the screen door, looking at me the same way she looks at the dog when he runs around like crazy by himself, muttering that he must be insane or just plain stupid.

I turned and ran across Mr. King’s yard. I caught a glimpse of Katie. She hadn’t moved. She was just watching me and smiling with her empty mouth. Brenda slammed into her and pushed her along.

They both started running again.

After Mr. King’s was the Burrell’s yard. They never did yard work. Sticks cracked under my feet as I ran past their huge willow. Dad said he hoped it would get struck by lightning someday. He said that everyone hated the Burrell’s.

I looked back. Brenda had crossed the ditch and was running behind me in the yards.

She was getting closer.

I could feel my fat jiggling as I ran. I hated it. “Look at your bitch-tits,” my dad would say if he saw me running.

I was starting to lose my breath.

There were only two more yards before Orchard Lake Road—the Wilson’s and some new people that just moved in a few weeks ago.

Katie was parallel with me now, still on the road. She was pointing my umbrella handle at me. Had Brenda given it to her? She didn’t stab it at me like her sister. She looked like maybe she wanted to give it back.

I crossed from the Wilson’s to the new neighbor’s yard. I could sense Brenda behind me, but I couldn’t hear her footsteps.

My thighs ached. My throat burned.

A car zipped by on Orchard Lake. I could feel its wind.

I wasn’t going to stop.

I was stupid and fat and I was going to cross Orchard Lake Road. I was going to the other side to find my pinewood derby car. It was somewhere over there, where I could do whatever I wanted. I could float boats and eat spaghetti sandwiches and drink orange juice all day long.

I looked for Katie. She’d stopped running. She’d passed me and was now kneeling in the middle of Orchard Lake Road. It looked like she was picking up a penny.

A cold hand touched my shoulder. I tried to pull away, giving all the energy I had, but something kicked my leg. I tripped and slammed down on the gravel shoulder of Orchard Lake. I could smell the asphalt.

“No!” Brenda said.

I lifted my head and watched her run across the shoulder of the road. She crossed the yellow line and caught up to her sister.

They both turned in time to see the truck. Their eyes were wide as can lids. The truck never slowed down. Its wind was cold against my sweaty body. The girls screamed, but were suddenly silent.

The truck passed and they were gone.

I sat up. There were rocks and pebbles stuck to me. I brushed them off. They left red dents on my skin where they’d been stuck. I rubbed my face and my hand came away bloody.

I got up. I could see something on top of one of the culverts. Something small and black. It was my pinewood derby car. I picked it up.

I’d made the car myself. It took last place. Danny Yolan told me it was sucky before he pushed me down. It was sucky. The worst derby car ever made.

But it wasn’t a derby car anymore. It was a boat.

 

Strip of Skin

by Leigh Harken

 

It’s not like I killed anyone. And while learning that a loved one had been dug up nine days after burial and had a strip of skin cut off from head to foot was probably upsetting to the family of Roger Theodore Sterling 1938-1999 it didn’t cause any harm. The police never found who did it. It made the front page of the town weekly, big news in our little town, and even had a little article in the Hometown section of the city newspaper. Police said the incident was gang related.

Matt rolls over in his sleep. We’ve been married almost five years. He insisted we get married right out of high school, he was so in love with me. It was the gossip of the high school and the town. The most popular boy falls for the least popular girl. The girl who had been following him like a shadow since middle school. The girl he had pushed out of a bus seat so he could sit with his girlfriend in eighth grade. The girl he’d scorned for twelve and a half years—kindergarten to senior year—and then one day he woke up madly in love with her. It was like a movie.

After we got married we moved to the city. Matt decided he didn’t want to go to college, though he could have had a full baseball scholarship, because he wanted to get a job right away and take care of me. He got a job selling cellular phones. I stay home. He doesn’t like the idea of me working. I sit at home and watch soaps. I volunteer with the historical society. He’s been passed over for manager twice.

In our town he’d always been the Big Shot. The pitcher of the winning baseball team. We won because of him and the whole town knew it. He was even scouted by a bunch of colleges and a couple of minor leagues. He was the most loved son. The one everyone wanted to be around. So full of potential. And for the first few years it was still like that. It was like being married to the crown prince of Westchester, Illinois. But now Leif Harris, who graduated in our class, has already got his MBA and a good job at a Fortune 500 company. My mother talks about him all the time. And Matt, “Well,” she says, “He never went on to do anything. Except have the good sense to marry you,” and she kisses me on my forehead.

I’m leaving him. That is certain. This is not what I had bargained for when I dug up the corpse of Roger Theodore Sterling 1938-1999 and skinned off a strip of skin with my father’s black-handled hunting knife. This is not what I had intended when I picked the lock on Matt’s parents’ house and snuck into his room to tie the strip of skin around his leg.

I waited in his room all that night until the sky had lightened to cornflower blue and I knew the sun would be up soon and people would wake. I waited that whole night, sitting on the hardwood floor next to him as he slept, imagining if the spell worked. I would hear that breathing next to me at night. I looked at his baseball trophies and imagined him. How he would be a baseball star and love me and I would love him and we’d be a perfect couple. At dawn I untied the strip, which was now crusty, and snuck back out. I told my mother I was sick and slept all that day. At 3:30 Matt called. He wanted to know why I wasn’t in school that day, and that he’d just broken up with Amy so did I have a date to the prom?

I’m leaving him. There is only one question. The spell is only broken if he sees the strip of skin. I still have it. It is in a hidden drawer of my jewelry box. It has dried out and collected some dust. It doesn’t uncurl anymore. Sometimes I take it out and look at it while Matt is at work.

So do I show it to him, during the divorce or as I leave, and break the spell? Do I let him go on with his own life? Or do I keep it hidden forever?

 

No Free Lunch

by Alex Bledsoe

 

Newell smiled as something smacked the wall of the old tool shed and a woman’s angry voice yelled, “What the hell!

He gave a satisfied sigh through the surgical mask he always wore outside the house, and heaved himself out of the rocking chair on his back porch. He paused for a quick whiff from his asthma inhaler, then tucked his daddy’s old .12-gauge shotgun under his arm. His shadow, cast by the rising sun, stood out in sharp relief on the front of the shed. He fished a key from his pocket, undid the lock and opened the door.

In one corner crouched a muddy, naked woman, her dark hair tangled and laced with grass and leaves. A tight leather collar encircled her neck, and a thick chain linked it to a swivel stake pounded deep into the ground. Genuine police handcuffs bound her wrists and ankles.

She glared up at him. “Get these damn things off me,” she snarled, her voice wet and gurgly, still half-animal.

“Not likely,” he chuckled.

She curled long legs under her body and arched her spine; the move was slow, languorous, provocative, but he recognized it as the preparation to spring. Even with her ankles cuffed, he knew she could easily leap the distance to him.

He aimed the shotgun at her. “Y’all be careful now, bitch.”

“Don’t call me a bitch,” she said through her teeth. The muscles along her back and thighs rippled with contained energy. “And god-dammit, I’m thirsty.”

“There’s the water,” he said, and nodded toward a large dog bowl.

Her green eyes flashed with venom, but her body relaxed as she crawled to the bowl, bent her face to it and began to lap at the water.

“I’m curious,” Newell said as she drank. “Which is the real you? Are you a human that turns into a wolf at night, or a wolf who becomes human at dawn?”

“I’m both,” she gasped between gulps. “You wouldn’t understand. And what the hell did you do to me?”

“That goat you just happened to find was tanked up on Benadryl.”

Benadryl? The allergy stuff?”

He nodded. “I got tons of it, prescription strength. Been using it for my allergies since before they made it over-the-counter. Makes you awful damn groggy the first time you take it, and tends to dehydrate you a little. So once you ate the goat, I just waited awhile and then followed you to where you fell asleep.”

She sat back on her heels and wiped her mouth with her hands. Despite her nakedness and bondage, there was nothing helpless or frightened about her. “So now you’ve captured a werewolf, fat boy. What do you plan to do? Screw me while I’m human?” She smiled viciously. “Or are you one of those weird rednecks that’s so far out in the country he has to get off on animals?”

“No, I don’t plan to s-screw you,” he said, unable to keep the red flush from his face at the mention of sex. He awkwardly pushed his inhaler under his mask with his free hand and tried to hold the shotgun steady with the other.

“Then you better know I’m going to kill you when I change again. Once the moon rises, these little toys of yours—” she jingled the cuffs for emphasis, “—won’t hold me for a second.”

“They’ll hold you long enough.”

Her expression darkened. “Long enough for what?”

“To turn me. When it gets dark and the moon comes up again, you’ll become a wolf, and then you’ll bite me.”

She smiled, and her tongue licked a stray droplet from her chin. “Bite you, hell. I’ll rip you into bite-size pieces.

“No. You’ll bite me, and then I’ll shoot you, and wait for my own change.”

She laughed, low like a growl. “Oh, please. You don’t know what you’re getting into here, asthma boy. I was born this way, I’ve had my whole life to master it. You’d go insane the first time you change, the first time you see the world as a wolf.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.” And he was, after forty years of extreme nearsightedness, of asthma that kept him almost sedentary, of the pot belly and baldness that made him realize he would never have the power of the young, handsome men he watched on the five-hundred satellite channels beamed into his home. Through the capricious curse of his genes, Newell the pathetic loser, who lived all alone in his dead parents’ house miles from nowhere and existed on his government checks, would never be able to summon big-breasted blondes at the snap of a finger. But Newell the wolfman would find those same women, all the beautiful ones who looked at him with pity and contempt, and rip their fickle and arrogant hearts from their perfectly-formed chests.

* * * * *

As darkness fell, Newell returned to the shed, his lungs tight with anticipation. He sucked a long draught from his inhaler and shone the flashlight on the woman.

She curled in the corner, knees drawn to her chest. Her dirt-coated body glistened with sweat, and her breath ran rapid and shallow. Newell cracked the shotgun and made sure the breach held a shell.

Her eyes, now glassy and dazed, opened slightly. “Are you really… going to kill me…?” she rasped.

He nodded. “Gonna shoot you dead. Nobody’ll ever know, neither. Got a big ol’ tub of lye in the cellar just waiting to burn you down to nothing.”

Her expression softened a little. “If I said… please… would it matter? If I promised to do… anything you wanted…?”

He shook his head. In her human life, this woman—sensually at ease with her own beauty—was exactly the kind of bitch who both ignored him and, he was convinced, laughed at him behind his back. She would be the first one to die by his hand, but not the last.

Now she smiled, and he noticed her teeth were noticeably larger, longer, sharper. “Then like the Chinese say, fat boy… be careful… you’re about to get… what you wished for…”

Hair sprung from every pore, in moments becoming sleek fur. Her face elongated, forming a muzzle that darkened as long whiskers wriggled out. Foam spewed from her lips as they drew back over fangs that gnashed and snapped at the air. The cuffs holding her feet and hands—now paws—yanked tight, and he knew they would break before long under the werewolf’s supernatural power.

Ignoring his tight, aching chest, he crawled to her and stuck his hand in her mouth.

With a deep snarl the fangs crushed bone and tendon. He screamed and tried to pull away, but she had him, and in his panic he couldn’t get the shotgun turned on her. The chain between the cuffs squealed as the links began to part, and he fumbled wildly with the gun.

He’d taken no chances, loading the shotgun shell with silver shot made from heirloom dinnerware. The blast practically tore her in half, pulverizing everything from sternum to pelvis. She made a sound like a dog hit by a car.

The echo faded. Newell carefully pulled his mangled hand from the dead werewolf’s mouth. He had four huge puncture holes from the fangs, and blood pulsed out with each rapid heartbeat. He watched the wolf, waiting for it to turn back into a woman like they always did in the movies. But nothing happened.

He smiled. Except for the blinding pain, it had gone exactly as he’d planned.

* * * * *

When he awoke the next morning, the bite wound had completely healed. So when the change came over Newell the next night, he was ready for it.

He stood, naked except for his glasses, before his full-length bathroom mirror, watching for any sign. Since he’d noticed it first in the girl’s teeth, he kept pulling back his lips and checking. In the harsh fluorescent light his pale, flabby body looked slug-like, an invertebrate coincidentally shaped like a man. But not for long.

He didn’t anticipate the nausea, the disorientation as his senses shifted into heightened canine awareness. He fell to the floor as his limbs changed shape, felt the tingles as fur sprouted from his skin. He opened his eyes, and saw the world through the eyes of a wolf, in dim color but sharp focus. He placed his four feet on the tile and lifted his weight, enjoying the way the muscles coiled and flexed. In the mirror, an enormous, elegant monster stared back at him.

Then his nose itched. He sneezed. He paused, shook his head, and sneezed again. His eyes began to water.

As he collapsed in an absolute fit of sneezing, he realized that no matter what else had changed, he still had his allergies.

One of which was to dogs.

 

Eternal Poetry

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

I stare at Mom, can’t believe what she’s just said. Dad invited Gunther to the family party next Friday? Gunther the Gross? The lecher from the blood lagoon? That letter Gunther sent me five years ago—the description of my vulnerable white throat—bordered on vampire porn. No explicit sexual language, but I could read between the lines. Mom can’t possibly expect me to show up and meet him face to face, can she? Besides, I’ve got a date with Lenny, the non-Gunther… the sweetest man ever.

Oh, god. I may have to tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.

“Gunther’s rather crazy about you. You shouldn’t make yourself so scarce when he comes to California.” Mom minces an onion, her shoulder-length auburn hair swept back with silver combs. Her knife blade taps against the wooden chopping board. She blinks, eyes watering. “He’s just lonely. You ought to give him a second chance.”

Excuse me? Mom’s ignoring basic facts again. I’m twenty-five years old. Gunther’s three hundred. I eat raw vegetables. He prefers raw steak. I want a loving, nurturing relationship. He wants to lay me and drink my blood. Gunther’s more than “rather crazy” if he thinks he’ll attract me. He’s insane.

“We’ve nothing in common.” I wrap a lavender muffler around my neck and button my black leather coat.

“But he’s one of your dad’s best friends.” Mom’s voice has that quiver. Her big brown eyes widen, as though she could shapeshift into a cocker spaniel.

I’m about to get “The Lecture.” How Gunther smuggled Dad out of Paris during the French Revolution. How Dad smuggled Gunther into Paris during World War II. I don’t need to hear yet another rendition of this male bonding saga. Time to tune out, get out and bring Lenny dinner.

“Let me think it over,” I say and retrieve my handbag from a kitchen chair. “I’m meeting friends in San Francisco. Don’t wait up.”

The think-it-over period ends five seconds later. Sorry, Mom. I’ll head for S.F. this Friday night, too.

The screen door squeaks and closes behind me. The chilly December air feels good against my face. I climb into my white Honda and drive toward our local Italian deli. Dad’s so traditional. Preparing garlic bread at our house is politically incorrect. Lenny adores garlic. He’s my kind of vampire.

Mom and Dad… they’re so dear. They should back off, though. Sure, a dot com downsized me two years ago. Yes, I had to move back home. But I design websites and don’t ask my parents for money. I’m capable of running my own life. And I intend to run it with Lenny around.

Light shines inside of Delano’s Deli, although it’s past closing time. I knock on the door. My order’s packed and waiting. I place the warm bread and pasta on the floor of my car, near the heater vent. The Caesar salad goes into the trunk to stay cold. Soon I’m approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. The aromas of garlic and parmesan inside my car are amazing. Lenny is going to love this meal.

I Googled websites for supernaturals three months ago and met Lenny. He’s thirty-some. Works nights as a museum security guard. I’ll hang out with him until dawn. He occasionally does the blood experience thing—not with me—but never obsesses about it. I don’t drink blood at all, although the trait’s in my genes. I’m just not ready. Besides, I haven’t been through “The Change” yet. That might not happen for another ten or twenty years. There’s no predicting when. Lenny respects my feelings, doesn’t try to push me. And he writes free verse for Poetry Flash. Totally cool.

Traffic slows a little on the bridge. A stream of headlights blazes from across the divider. Holiday shoppers heading home to Marin County. The holidays… I’d really love to see Aunt Millie and Uncle Claude this Friday night. My second cousin Vinnie, too. But Gunther might arrive before I leave to meet Lenny. Okay, so what if he does? I’ll tell Gunther to stay out of my space. He’s got no right to ruin my family’s reunion.

Five minutes from the museum, I ring Lenny on my cell. I park in the usual spot. My headlights illuminate a tall, hairy form. That face… like Disney’s Beast on a bad hair day. The figure wears a guard’s uniform. Must be Lenny. I didn’t know he could shapeshift. Most vampires can’t. And what set him off? I roll down the window a few inches.

“Is it safe for me to open my door?”

“All clear.” Lenny breathes hard. “Couple of punks just tried to spray paint a statue in the courtyard. I scared the shit out of them.”

“Awesome.”

But, is it? Are there other major things about him I don’t know?

Lenny grins and shrugs, resembles a huge stuffed toy. God, he’s so cute, cuddly and kissable. I could curl up next to him in bed. We haven’t had sex together yet. Maybe he planned to surprise me this way the first time. That must be the reason he didn’t reveal his shapeshifting talent before.

If only I could introduce him to my parents, be more open about our future. But security guards don’t earn big money. And his mom lives in a trailer in rural North Carolina. He sends her a check whenever he can. Gunther owns a Manhattan penthouse. A private jet, too. Dad probably won’t approve of Lenny. But, wait, don’t I want to run my own life? I should ask Lenny to our family party now.

I climb out of my Honda, then picture Gunther meeting Lenny. I’ve never actually seen Gunther, not even his photo, although I once sent him mine. Bet he looks like the Terminator, only with Goth makeup and fangs.

I envision a confrontation. Gunther paws me. Lenny sprouts hair, snarls and leaps to my rescue. Fur flies. Mom screams. Neighbors dial 911 and Animal Control. I die from embarrassment. No, I can’t invite Lenny to this particular party.

“About Friday,” I say, as I remove the salad from the trunk. “My family is having a gathering. I might get to S.F. an hour late. Is that okay?”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Lenny sounds excited. He picks up the foil bag of pasta and garlic bread. His fur recedes. He’s almost back to normal, now. “I’m reading my latest poem this Friday night. At this incredible new literary bar in Sausalito. You won’t have to drive anywhere. I’ll pick you up at nine-thirty.”

“My place?” If hearts could sink, mine would beat between my toes.

“That’s all right, isn’t it?” He scrunches his eyes. A lock of his curly black hair dangles between his bushy eyebrows. “I mean, if it’s a problem for you…”

My mind gropes for words, like a mountain climber struggling for footholds. Lenny’s sensitive about his iffy financial situation. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And this isn’t the right time to mention Gunther.

“A storm’s predicted,” I say, “and your truck needs new brakes. Let me drive you.”

“A friend promised to work on my truck tomorrow.”

“Then… there’s no problem.” I flash a quick smile. “Hey, I’m really excited for you. This could take your writing career to the next level.”

And I am happy for Lenny. Except, what am I going to do on Friday night?

* * * * *

The minute hand on our mantel clock advances with a muted click. Eight o’clock. Guests should arrive soon. I straighten the holly garland festooning a nearby mirror, then curl a strand of my cocoa-brown hair around my first finger. The crimson sequins on my dress shimmer. Bare shoulders, calves and knees. Perhaps I should wear something less revealing.

Mom sets a platter of rare roast beef on the buffet table. Sprigs of parsley rim the border. Bloody juices ooze from the slices and pool beneath the garnish. Christmas colors of the macabre kind.

I place cocktail napkins near the crystal punch bowls. The smaller bowl contains eggnog. The larger one holds Dad’s infamous red punch. That color and texture don’t come from tomato juice. I’ll stick with eggnog tonight. I’m sure Cousin Vinnie will, too.

Gunther could be here any minute. Yet there’s still time to tell Mom about Lenny. She hums “Jingle Bells.” Looks so happy. Dad, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and green shirt, stuffs another oak log into the fireplace. Sparks scatter, like a flurry of red rain. A velvet ribbon decorates his thick salt-and-pepper ponytail. He glances toward Mom and smiles. This is their special party and they want to include Gunther. I would be selfish to darken their festive mood. Tonight, flying sparks are only permitted in the fireplace. And that’s exactly what I must say to Gunther—somehow—when we are alone.

The doorbell rings. I wait near the hearth. Mom gushes out a greeting. Dad calls my name. I straighten my posture. My three-inch heels clunk against the hardwood floor. This is it.

Dad’s hugging someone a little shorter than he is—a man, medium build and approximately Lenny’s size. Must be Gunther, although I expected a body builder. The guy has dark hair. I can’t see his face, though. But, wait… his hair appears so familiar… is as black and wavy as Lenny’s.

Then Dad steps aside. It is Lenny! But they don’t even know each other. What the hell is going on? And Lenny’s wearing an expensive tweed sports coat. He only owns uniforms and jeans.

“And you must be Angela,” Lenny says to me. He winks and extends his arm. “That high school photo you once mailed me hardly does you justice.”

But I’d sent that photo to… Gunther. Oh, no! I stammer the “F” word, run to my bedroom and slam the door.

Gunther stalked me. Used someone else’s name. Baited an electronic trap. Never wrote a poem in his life. Right now, he’s probably laughing with Mom and Dad. Telling them the whole ridiculous story, including the bit about his mom in North Carolina. I was so stupid and gullible. Totally out-of-touch. I sit on the edge of my bed and sob. If this were a reality T.V. show, I’d be voted off the island.

The doorbell rings. Relatives must be arriving. I refuse to endure Gunther’s smirks of satisfaction. I’ll stay where I am.

Then I remember. I wasn’t completely honest with him. Couldn’t even admit to Mom and Dad that I dated him. But Gunther’s—Lenny’s—betrayal of me is a far worse offense. Yet, when we were together, he was so much fun. Those words in the website ad. “One in search of another. Objective—eternal poetry.” How does he really feel about me?

Someone knocks on my bedroom door.

“Honey,” Mom says, “are you okay?”

I hadn’t wanted to spoil the party. I stand and face myself in the mirror. Vampires do cast reflections, despite the urban legend. And I’m twenty-five. Ought to be able to handle what’s just happened.

“I’ll be out in a minute.” I apply fresh mascara and lipstick. Raindrops dot my window, now.

The house buzzes with vibrant conversation as I walk toward the living and dining rooms. An array of platters smother the buffet table. Aunt Millie’s squash roll-ups… Cousin Vinnie’s artichoke frittata… raw carrot and celery strips… crisp snap peas. These are food gifts from my family. There for me.

Dad motions for me to hurry. He stands in front of the fireplace and claps his hands.

“My good friend, Gunther Morris,” he says, “has joined us for this special occasion. Few know, but his poetry has been published under a variety of names for two hundred years. I’ve asked him to read.”

So at least that part is true. Gunther doesn’t look at me. Just as well.

Then he reads. Words flow from his mouth, like a gentle stream tumbling over smooth rocks on a bright spring day. The volume intensifies, ebbs and flows like tides. He could be thirty or three-hundred. His verse is timeless—beautiful.

But who is he really? Dad’s friend and ally? The sensitive poet? Or the creep who wrote me that disgusting letter five years ago, that page I flushed down the toilet before anyone else could read it? Perhaps he’s a combination of all these people. Or, entirely different.

I can’t sort out his identity now. Only one decision matters. Do I, or don’t I, walk away from our relationship tonight?

He finishes reading. Aunt Millie daubs her lace handkerchief against the corner of her eye. Mom sniffles. Gunther proposes a toast. His gaze locks to mine.

“One in search of another.” He raises his cup. “May we share eternity with the true love we each find.”

Everyone raises a cup of Dad’s red punch, even Vinnie. I don’t have any cup. Mom gestures toward the eggnog. All wait for me. I’m old enough to serve myself. I approach the table.

The eggnog sits to my left—smooth and palatable. A symbol of my life until now? To my right is Dad’s red punch. My inevitable future. Which beverage should I choose?

Gunther’s letter… I sift through the memory of his written words. I once told him I read Anne Rice. Maybe he got the wrong impression. Lightning flashes beyond our picture window. Thunder rumbles. Gunther probably didn’t mean to offend me, just crafted a message for a real vampire.

One in search of another? He found me. Yet I continue to hide from myself.

I ladle red punch into a clear cup. Tiny clots dot an ice cube. Will this stuff make me gag? The mantel clock chimes, as though answering my question. Time to find out.

I raise my cup.

And whatever else happens before dawn, I’ll finally tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.