Fairy Tales and Freedom
Brooke’s feet drummed up the winding dirt trail. As the sun rose, a reddish glow peeked out from the mist veiling the mountains. Each step was a stolen moment. At dawn, when she’d given up on sleep in the motel room she splurged on with the last of her tips, she stumbled outside to feel the crisp chill of morning mountain air. But instead of just breathing some in and getting home, she’d spotted a crooked wooden sign nailed to a post marking a trailhead and couldn’t resist.
Mona, her mother, had told Brooke she should get away for a night. It was her birthday yesterday, three decades in the world, and Mona still knew what Brooke needed, even if she could be, depending on the day, innocent of her own needs. It was only the three of them now—she and Mona and Brooke’s daughter, Chloe. Every night, Brooke went to sleep with Chloe’s body tucked against hers and Mona’s snores in the next room that would’ve been Chloe’s. Brooke hadn’t wanted to leave them alone, but Mona said they’d have a grand time, and Brooke chose to believe her, even if Mona sometimes forgot where the forks went or put her keys in the freezer. Maybe that happened to everyone at a certain age. Still, Brooke planned to go back to their small house in Denver right after her run. If she drove fast enough, they’d barely be waking up.
She ran in a steady rhythm she’d forgotten she loved, telling herself she’d just go to the next tree, or the next turn in the trail, but her feet kept taking her higher and higher, closer and closer to something. Maybe freedom, like freedom was a thing waiting at the top of a mountain.
She rounded a bend, the trail narrowing so much that one wrong move would tumble her over the steep edge, but she made it past to where the path widened again. A white baby blanket lay a few feet in front of her, smoothed flat and covered in mud. Chloe was two and carried a fuzzy pink blanket around wherever she went. Was Mona keeping track of it? Probably. Even before, Mona had never been good at things like what time to pick up Brooke at the bus or at making sure she ate three meals a day, but she paid attention to Brooke’s heart, and now, Chloe’s.
Had someone dropped a blanket on this deserted trail? How was it possible for something to fall so neatly? She leapt over it, and to her left, a blue tarp hung over a mound of crushed cans and an overturned green plastic chair. She slowed a little, then sped up again, passing two crumpled sleeping bags and a ripped tent behind a tree. This was as sure a sign as any that she’d gone too far, that whatever lurked here was not going to be what she was seeking. But somehow the thought of turning around and having it, or them, at her back was worse. On the trails, there was always the sensation of a bear watching, waiting, from afar. She knew the rules—if you saw one, you made yourself bigger and louder, trying to scare it away, and if all else failed, you fought it with every limb and object you had. And the most important rule of all: if you saw a mama bear with her cub, you were fucked. But people in the trees, their blinking eyes, their hidden motivations, their inscrutable desires, posed a different, more tangible threat.
The sun, pale white now, flashed off another tarp, this one sagging between a trio of trees like it had been intended as a shade but couldn’t bear the weight of its task. Making the mistake of glancing at it a second too long, she stumbled on a rock, losing her footing and falling hard on her side.
She sat for a second, stunned, then made herself look at her throbbing ankle. Wanting to prove it wasn’t sprained, just maybe twisted a bit, she pressed on it and winced, though the pain was still an idea, a remote pulsing she imagined she could somehow stop in its tracks.
Then a guttural male voice said, “That looked pretty bad.”
She tried to jump up but landed hard on her butt.
“Hey now, sit tight.”
Brooke drew her knees up to her chest, as if that was somehow her best protection.
A tall man came out from behind the trees, the tautness in his lean muscles betraying the practiced calm gaze of his blue eyes. His shaggy blond hair spilled around to the tips of his ears, looking just short of unkempt, and he wore worn jeans and a dusty white undershirt. He looked like some of the cooks at the diner, flattened out by life and then reconstructed as these lone men, keeping it together with cocktails of cigarettes and beer. Brooke had thought these men hardened, but equally harmless, until one of them cornered her in the staff bathroom and held her arms behind her back while he rubbed up against her. The owner, luckily, had noticed them both missing and used her key to open the door before anything else happened. But the point was, the looks of a man could only tell you so much.
“You don’t look so fine.”
She managed to get to her feet on her good leg and tried to shuffle down the trail, dragging her hurt foot and hoping he would go away. But she stumbled. He caught her arm, leaning her against a tree.
“I can make it down. I just need some time.” Her eyes stung with dried sweat and the beginning of tears. She had to get back. What had she been thinking, leaving Chloe with Mona for even this long? Was Mona taking her medication? Brooke always put it next to her breakfast, which she also had to remind Mona to eat. Was she feeding Chloe? How long could her child make do with Mona’s songs and good intentions?
“What you need is some ice and to prop that thing up. Here, let me.” He looped his arm under hers.
Brooke drew her arm away and pressed herself into the tree for balance. “I’m okay. My husband . . . he’s right behind me on the trail.”
But he wasn’t. Randy wasn’t anywhere she knew about, and he’d never been her husband. Randy had left soon after she’d moved Mona in without really asking him. He’d disappeared in a way she would’ve thought impossible.
He gave her a long look. “You don’t have to be afraid of me, you know.”
Brooke had met Randy on the main road she turned off nearly every night to get home after her shift. She’d almost run straight into the lump of shadow outlined by moonlight, but she hit the brakes in time, veering off to the side. Her older sister would’ve said it wasn’t safe to get out and to let the police handle it. Though her sister’s choices had led her to a generally more stable life, Brooke couldn’t seem to ever agree with her. So Brooke stepped into the freezing winter air, and the lump, Randy, groaned, asking if she could help him up. She had, and he’d insisted he’d rather a drink than a hospital. Brooke, imagining the taillights blinding him as whoever hit him sped away, took him to the nearest bar. She bought him two whiskeys she couldn’t really afford, and in return, he gave her stories of hitchhiking around the West and soon after, Chloe.
“I can’t really know if that’s true until it’s too late.”
He nodded. “How about I get you some ice in town? And if you want to not be where I can find you when I get back, well then.”
Brooke imagined this guy was used to not being trusted, more because of his circumstances than anything about him. But circumstances weren’t to be dismissed. Circumstances could take purity and spin it over its shoulder and smash it to the ground. Still, ice sounded pretty good.
“Okay . . .”
“Okay, Dustin.” He reached out his hand, even the trimmed nails appearing scrubbed clean.
She hesitated, then shook it. His callouses rubbed a brief pleasing roughness against her palm. “Brooke.”
“I’ll be back.”
As he took off jogging down the trail, the bottom of his flip-flops kicked up dirt, adding another layer of light brown to what was already there. For the man who walks the earth must gather dust. Brooke almost giggled as she sank to the ground. It was like her head had been injured instead of her ankle, making her think philosophical bullshit such as Randy liked to spout.
She saw her phone sitting with the rest of her stuff in the motel room she was supposed to be checking out of soon. She’d liked the idea of leaving the phone behind for this sliver of time, where no one knew where she was, where she wasn’t mother or daughter or stranded girlfriend, but simply Brooke. She’d thought it a harmless gift of freedom to herself—it had been too early after all for anyone to need anything from her.
If she had her phone though, who would she call? Mona didn’t drive anymore, and Randy hadn’t answered a call or text since the day he left six months earlier. She’d come home from work to find all his things gone. Mercifully, he left her their small car, so at first she kept thinking he’d come back, tired of taking buses, or walking, or hitching rides. What he hadn’t left was a note, so Brooke could only guess it was Mona in their second bedroom, Mona wandering around the house in her slippers, humming her songs and smiling her secret smiles. But Brooke also couldn’t get it out of her head that the thing she’d gone too far with wasn’t Mona but the curtains. Over the kitchen window, she’d hung these pink-checked curtains Mona had brought from the house where Brooke grew up. That night, Randy had drained a beer before walking out of the kitchen, leaving behind deliberate muddy footprints.
Her ankle pulsed, and she ached for Chloe. Maybe she should heed Dustin’s words (were they a warning after all?) and get somewhere he couldn’t find her. But she felt strangely calm, drugged almost, under the spell of the flapping of bird’s wings and the sun’s shifting patterns in the trees. The yellow wildflowers eager in the breeze and the green valleys swooping their gallant invitations.
She wondered how long she’d been running and how long it would take Dustin to get down and back up, then considered the danger was really that he’d only been messing with her. Maybe there was no ice or a plan to come back. She lay back in the dirt with her hands behind her head, telling herself she’d just rest a few more minutes before trying to limp down. She’d barely slept in the motel bed by herself, and the run was more exercise than she’d done in months, other than the back and forth from the kitchen to the endless waiting tables. Soon, the sun found her skin, and she fought her drooping eyelids. She remembered the first few days that Randy stayed in her apartment, how he slept and slept, saying it was hard to let go of his vigilance in other people’s trucks or cars or on the couches he was offered occasionally. That, more than anything, was what made Brooke let him stay. She’d wanted to be his, or just someone’s, safe place.
She felt a coolness shadowing her and propped herself on her elbows. There Dustin was, standing over her and holding somewhat miraculously, a bag with ice and two small orange pills reading Advil displayed in his open palm.
“As promised.” He handed her the ice and the pills, then one of those expensive water bottles that kept cool things cool and hot things hot. “One hiker’s casualty is my bounty.”
She looked at the orange pills in her palm, knowing some women would wonder if there were ways to fake the black printing reading Advil. But Brooke decided that even if this were possible, Dustin wouldn’t be the kind to do it. As she swallowed the Advil, she thought that if he wanted something from her, he would prefer her to want it too, so really, she was less at his mercy and more at her own. She patted the ice against her skin, feeling it as an almost pleasurable pain.
“Thanks,” Brooke said.
“No problem.” He looked down at her. “You didn’t step on that blanket.”
“Why would I?”
“So it’s like a test or something?”
He shrugged and crouched. “Should give it a break.”
He slid the bag of ice off her ankle in a way that was both tender and assured. Brooke looked at her skin, still cool and wanted him to do that again. Again, Mommy, Chloe always whispered when she’d done something Chloe liked, her eyes roundly sparkling with hope. Anything to keep the sensation of love flowing, as if it were something alive as a ball they needed to keep in the air. Don’t let the ball fall in the swamp, or in the cracks and crevices of the earth, all the things Chloe imagined in their games.
Something shifted in Dustin’s noncommittal gaze, or maybe it was there since she met him, but he’d done a better job of hiding it until now. While Brooke was aware she was considered pretty, it was nothing she felt she had anything to do with—she’d been born with her looks after all. Mostly they brought her trouble, like with the cook or even with Randy, who she didn’t think had bothered to know her until it was too late and there were curtains and a sick mother and a baby girl. But the way Dustin was looking at her now, she felt the awareness as this fresh flush, like how it was at the beginning, when she was maybe fourteen and first understood she had something that made men stir, which in turn stirred her.
“I should probably head down now. The aspirin’s kicking in.”
“That quickly? But if you want to get away from me, I understand.”
“No, no, I don’t want to get away from you.” She’d said it automatically, but it was also true. “I saw your sleeping bags and tent. Looks pretty rough.”
He laughed. “None of that was mine. If you really want to see how to do it right up here, I’ll show you where I live.”
Brooke imagined herself hobbling down the mountain with painful steps, eventually making it back to her car and then Mona asking the same questions and then those curtains which Brooke couldn’t take down now, when it didn’t matter anymore, and then of course, Chloe, and her little face sticking to her calf, the feeling of suffocation and consuming love inseparable.
Dustin shrugged. “It’s your call.”
What was he hiding in the trees? Some sort of magical shelter he’d fashioned from his own hands with everything he needed to live? Or did he want to bring her somewhere no one would hear her scream? Then again, no one would likely hear her scream from where she sat.
Brooke nodded. “Alright.”
Dustin turned his back to her. “Come on, get on.”
She put her arms around his wiry neck and hoisted her legs around his frame. Even this close, he smelled of wet leaves and outdoor fires. He cradled her hurt ankle so it wouldn’t bounce, and Brooke almost cried again because it had been so long since anyone had cradled her anything. They walked up the trail a few minutes and then passed through the trees to a small clearing populated by a sturdy gray tent, two lined-up red canvas chairs with a guitar propped against one, a cooler, a small stove, and a scooped out hole, fragments of ashy wood scattered inside it. He eased her onto one of the chairs.
Brooke was both impressed and disappointed. It was a neat and functional campsite, with nothing magical about it.
“Want a beer?” he asked, going over to the cooler.
Brooke told herself to stand. But also she could taste that beer, see herself drinking it slowly next to Dustin as they listened to the chatter of birds and the rustling of panicked leaves who had nothing to fear.
“Just one,” she said. “Where did all this come from?”
He handed her a craft IPA, another surprise. Did he have a job he hiked to every day? He didn’t look like the type to come from family money, but Brooke never knew. She’d met enough people who thought it was like a competition to act more down and out, except the people who were actually down and out didn’t enter.
“You’d be surprised what you can find on the mountain when you go looking for it.”
“Well, it looks kind of … nice.” It did. Like it was all you needed for a home. She took a sip of beer.
“Yeah, I don’t live like the others.”
“The others?” Brooke whipped her head around, seeing eyes in the blank spaces between leaves.
“Hey, don’t worry about them. They go beg in town, then come up here and drink whatever they made.”
“What about you? What do you do?”
“You’re looking at it, Brooke. Up here’s all about survival.”
Now was the time to tell him about Chloe and Mona, how she needed to get back, how she was not this free and unattached girl with time to learn what survival meant on this mountain. She barely understood what it meant down in their home where she was always afraid the owners would raise the rent, only that she was responsible for it.
Instead, she asked, “How did you get here?”
“I hiked up the mountain, same as you.”
“No, but like this.” She gestured to his belongings, his home.
“How does anyone get anywhere?”
Brooke thought this a good question. Her sister had moved to Los Angeles and used her looks in maybe a more productive way. She’d married a movie producer and had a pool and a nanny. She’d told Brooke to put Mona in a home, so Brooke did, but it wasn’t the kind of home her sister meant.
“What about your family? Is there anyone?” Brooke asked.
“Just a whole bunch of foster parents and my little sister, who got herself adopted at ten, then went and got a job at Disney World dressing up as one of those princesses who takes pictures with kids. Good looks and lucks. Can you believe that? But I get it. She’s got this fantasy to step into every day. I visited her once and she said she could get me a job, maybe cleaning bathrooms or something, but it wasn’t for me. All these triumphant and glossy territories. No wars and no one’s poor or sad or sick or addicted. Little dolls singing it’s a small world after all.” He laughed. “Truth is, there is a small world. But not everyone lives in it. And outside of it, it’s a wilderness.”
“A wilderness,” Brooke repeated. A wildness.
Dustin leaned back in his chair and stretched out his long legs, crossing them at the ankle. Brooke thought he was probably only a few years older than her, though he looked grizzled and wise enough to be much older. Randy was older than her too—a daddy complex, her sister would say, common for girls who’d lost their own daddies at sixteen, but Brooke thought life was more complicated than complexes leading you to one thing or another.
A chillier breeze went by, and Brooke noted the sun had moved across the sky. It must have been getting close to late afternoon, and Brooke knew it would get cold quickly on the mountain. She shivered involuntarily in her shorts and tank top. Dustin went to the tent, coming out with a woven blanket. He dropped it around her shoulders and kneeled in front of her, closing it over her bare legs in a way that felt almost ceremonial.
“There, better? I’ll light a fire.”
Brooke tried to make herself protest that they didn’t need a fire. She needed to get down the mountain before it got dark and colder. But she found herself entranced by the way Dustin was arranging logs and sticks, then holding a lighter steadily against the smallest, most breakable ones, gently coaxing their transformation into miniature flames until they became hot yawning murmurs pinning her in place.
Dustin dropped again to his knees in front of her, bringing his face close. “Warming up?”
Brooke didn’t move away. She understood she could, that he was giving her the chance. But she felt herself like one of the sturdier logs, slow to surrender but wanting to all the same.
Dustin slipped his hand under the blanket and up her shorts, finding her insides. “Definitely warm.”
Brooke’s throat caught, and she couldn’t find words. It was ridiculously bold, but she knew like he’d known that a kiss wouldn’t be enough. The prince kisses the princess and she awakens. No, she is saved. Or she falls farther into the world of bright colors and chirping woodland creatures and forgets to go home. Or the girl’s slumber is interrupted by the kiss, the motionless world wound up again, and she never knows which part was the dream, then or now. The tower, the spindle, the mirror, all the traps. She dimly wondered if she was falling into one as he moved his hand against her with measured concentration, like he’d done with the fervent wood, until she too split open with heat.
The forest noises let out their breath. She reached for him next, but he took her hand and kissed her palm, seeming to understand it was half-hearted, that reciprocity was something she’d been robbed of enough times to earn robbing someone else just this once. He arranged her head on his shoulder.
“Rest,” he said.
Her eyes obeyed as the slow strumming of a Bob Dylan song Mona used to sing to her as a lullaby lulled her into a deep, obliterated sleep. When she woke with a start, her teeth chattered with the cold, and it was gray as the ashes on the dead fire. Dustin was gone.
She touched her ankle, having to push down on the swelled skin to find the bone. She got to her knees and crawled on the muddy ground to the tent, peeking inside. Had he disappeared? Just like that? Just like Randy? Just like … but she couldn’t bear the thought.
She could picture Chloe, her face pressed with this serious expression to the window, watching for her car, like she sometimes did at the time Randy used to come home from the gas station where he worked the register. Seeing how she missed him in this pure, uncomplicated way always jolted her with a shock of loneliness, of understanding Chloe was her own separate little person. She wondered if Randy ever missed her, either of them.
She heard a whistling and Dustin appeared, grinning and carrying something wrapped in brown paper and another bag of ice.
“You came back.”
There was no reproach in her voice—the coming back made up for the leaving, as it turned out.
“Sorry to take off without saying anything, but you looked so peaceful. I got some dinner. And here.” He handed her two more Advil.
Where was Dustin getting medicine and ice, not to mention food? But more importantly, he had gotten it, and she was starving. He helped her back to the chair, then got the fire going again.
“Hold on,” he said, rummaging in the tent.
He came out with a sweatshirt, handing it to her. Its warmth felt better than any sweatshirt ever had in Brooke’s memory, and the meat, which he held on a stick over the fire, smelled like the essence of meat, some purer, distilled form of the food.
“Bison steaks. This is a special occasion. I rarely get visitors.” He turned the meat, seeming in high spirits, like a man cooking in his apartment for a new girlfriend. He handed her a flask.
Brooke wanted to say something about earlier or about how she really shouldn’t have anything else to drink, but instead she thanked him and sipped the bourbon. She couldn’t think beyond the next second, minute, hour. She was a wholly different person, it seemed, than she’d been yesterday morning, making little labels like turn me off to put on the stove or close me to put on the refrigerator. Now she couldn’t even bring herself to care that dusk was turning to darkness. Was it that easy to shirk her responsibilities? Did that mean she didn’t love Chloe at all? She’d thought that about Randy, when he left, that he just hadn’t loved Chloe enough, because she’d thought nothing could ever make her want to be anywhere but with her daughter. But now, she could imagine it somehow. She could find out how Dustin got his supplies. The two of them together, they could make this thing work. She could feel like this every day if she wanted. No obligations or expectations or failed curtains or dead fathers or disappeared boyfriends or the possibility she’d wake up one morning and Mona wouldn’t know her name.
Dustin handed her a sizzling piece of the meat, giving her the wrapper upside down to use as a plate and a plastic fork from his pocket. He ate with his hands, watching her. Some feeling flickered across Dustin’s face, impossible to read in the firelight, but also because she barely knew him. She passed him the flask and opened the blanket so he could fit under it too. With each incremental darkening of the sky, more stars popped out.
The silence was broken by crunching and hoots and hollers.
“Hey, Dustin,” a man’s voice called.
“Hey, hey,” he said back, shifting the blanket to Brooke.
A flashlight swept the ground in front of them, followed by a group of two men and three women wearing layers of clothing, as if they needed to keep what they owned on their bodies. Their facial hair and otherwise seemed to be growing in whatever directions nature dictated. The others. Not scary after all. Brooke found their carefree disarray enthralling.
One of the men lit a cigarette and grabbed the flask from Dustin, taking a long sip while regarding Brooke. “What’d you do Dust-man, capture the princess?”
The woman next to him punched his arm, taking the flask. “She ain’t no princess.”
“Quit it,” Dustin said. “Brooke, this is Francis, Rick, Jo-jo, Badger and Wanda.”
Francis, the woman who’d spoken, curtsied. The others lifted their beers in acknowledgement.
They settled on the ground, drinking and laughing. From one of his many pockets, Rick produced an old stereo with an actual cassette player, and he played a country song Brooke liked. Badger pulled Wanda up and danced around with her, singing in her ear. Brooke wished for Dustin to ask her to dance too, but he wasn’t looking at her.
Jo-jo turned to Dustin. “Melissa’s so pissed at you, dude. You’ve been all in her stuff, and she’s got that baby to take care of.”
Jo-jo narrowed her eyes at Brooke, as if this was all her fault, which in some inadvertent way, it was. Brooke tried to quell the panic rising in her chest. That baby? His baby? Was it better that this Melissa had traces of him?
“Alright now, get out of here, you dumb fucks,” Dustin said.
“Dustin, you gotta lighten up,” Francis said, standing. “Come on guys, we know where we ain’t wanted.”
Grumbling and laughing, they stumbled down the trail, the sound of them a rising and falling wave. Brooke pictured them settling among their beer cans and tarps. She waited for Dustin to say something, though part of her wanted to put her hand over his mouth, unless he was going to explain the girlfriend and baby weren’t his. To somehow find a way back to the stars and the bourbon, the fire and the hushing warmth.
But the spell, it seemed, could not be re-cast. “So you steal from her? That’s the big secret to your off the grid life?”
“I never tried to sell you on anything else.”
Brooke tossed the blanket to the ground, feeling sick at the faint soreness underneath her shorts. She stood, the twinge in her ankle an angry pinch.
Dustin jumped up. “You can’t go in the dark. Stay until morning.”
Brooke thought of Mona pacing the kitchen. Would she have forgotten where Brooke had gone? She’d written it down, but who knew if Mona would remember to look. Brooke was always miscalculating how bad it was, and then how good. She miscalculated everything.
“Is that what you did? Stayed until morning until one turned into another and you never had to go back and change diapers and be up in the night or even hang curtains?”
“Forget it. It’s a metaphor, or something.” But if that was true, what was it a metaphor for? Brooke desperately wanted to go home now, like a fever had broken, and she needed gallons of water. She craved crawling into bed with Chloe and watching the way her little finger twirled her hair before she went to sleep. How could anyone want to miss that?
“When it snows up here, you look at the mountains from wherever you are, and think how pretty, like sentries of serenity. But it’s cold, so cold you want to die. Whatever it is you think you want, it doesn’t exist.”
“So I’m supposed to feel sorry for you?”
“She kicked me out once the kid came.”
“The kid?” Was that what Randy now called Chloe? If he called her anything?
“She says I’m a loser, a waste of life. Been called that enough times to think that’s probably true.”
“The kid, your kid might think differently.”
Dustin stared hard at the ground, and Brooke wished the silver of the stars over them could carpet the dirt and shadows. Brooke felt the words bubbling up, the words she’d said to Randy when someone left him on the road. The words she’d said to Mona when she’d forgotten where her toilet was, and it was obvious she could no longer live on her own. Come with me.
Instead she said, “I have to get back.”
Dustin clasped her hand hard, and Brooke felt a tiny spasm of real fear, considering what he would do to keep her there. But then he loosened his grip.
“I look in their window sometimes when she’s feeding him dinner. He flaps his arms while he eats now. Used to be he was just this ball of fabric, could hardly catch sight of his face. I know it’s creepy, but the other side of the glass is all I got.”
Brooke placed the hand he’d dropped over his heart and just felt it beat, something she had only ever done with Chloe. “That’s something, I suppose. So you’ll help me down now?”
He put his arm around her waist, and then he became her stable foot, his steps slow to match hers, but sure, as if he’d walked this way in the dark hundreds of times, practicing like he’d one day need to know the way.
Kerry Jones (Runner-Up)
Last Night at the Starlight
The last Saturday evening in August and the air is hot and humid, and everything just feels sticky and heavy. Summer isn’t giving up the reins just yet, not without a final few punches. Laurie leans against the counter at the concession stand, watching cars crunch their way along the gravel path leading into the parking lot of the drive–in, but she doesn’t bother to count them. She and Susan have already placed their bets on how many cars will be here tonight, and Laurie has bet maybe twenty-five or thirty; it is the final night–the final night ever–for the Starlight, but Susan has low-balled it at fifteen tops. She’s said she doesn’t give a shit how much advertising the Davis family has done–it’s going to become part of the Bishop Salvage Yard and everyone knows it. The joke in town has been that since the drive-in has been a dump for years, it’s a just finale.
Laurie knows they may be right. For tonight’s final bow it’s a Peter Fonda double feature: Easy Rider, and then, for anyone who cares to stick around or is drunk or high enough to stay put, there’s Race with the Devil. And then–that’s all, folks. Meanwhile, at Cinemas Five in the Whitehall Mall, An Officer and a Gentleman is still playing. Laurie’s seen it three times, and each time she can see herself as Debra Winger in Richard Gere’s arms at the end. The last time she swore she could actually feel his arms beneath her, and even now she can only imagine how good it must feel to be carried off to a better life in the arms of a good-looking man who loves you, even if he spends most of his time being a complete asshole.
Sweat is already starting to pool in her armpits; by the end of the night, she’ll smell like stale hot dogs and old pizza–fifteen boxes of assorted pizza that’s delivered from Carmen’s on Third Street at about five in the afternoon, jammed into the refrigerators, then reheated in the microwave as patrons ask for it. If she’s especially unlucky, her hair will smell like Jiffy Pop. Nothing but the best served here. She almost cried with happiness when Mr. Davis took the nacho machine out after the Fourth of July. There’s only so much gross she can take.
“Jesus Christ. I know this night is never going to end.” Susan is beside her and slams her Diet Coke can on the counter too hard; soda fizzes up out of the can and runs all over. She looks at it and smirks, like it’s some funny trick. “And that’s just perfect. A swell start to another exciting night.”
Laurie grabs some paper towels and throws them at her. “Here. Clean up your own goddamn mess. Watch what you’re doing.”
Susan snaps her gum, blows a bubble, then sucks it in and pops it with her teeth. She knows damn well Laurie thinks that maneuver is disgusting, and she smiles. “What the hell’s up your ass tonight?”
Laurie doesn’t smile back. “The heat and the low wages,” she says. It’s a line from last weekend’s feature movie: Night Moves, with Gene Hackman. 1975. To be honest, it wasn’t a bad movie, but she can’t remember the last time the Starlight had shown anything more recent than something that was already three, four, five years old, and even in those cases it was usually some B horror flick, like Satan’s Cheerleaders. The Starlight was always a joke–people came to laugh at the tits-and-ass movies, get high, or screw.
Susan leans against the counter and stares at the cars pulling into the lot. “I can see you ‘re going to be original for the next few hours.”
“Oh, what the fuck is original?” Laurie says, and she says it with so much venom even she’s a little surprised. “When is the last time anything, anything, original happened around here?”
For once, Susan keeps her mouth shut and stares out at the expanse in front of them, and Laurie wonders if she finally sees what she’s been seeing lately: all the fields–the wheat that’s been harvested and the cornfields that are just starting to be harvested; the twinkling lights of the town’s grain elevator. If they were to walk the short distance to the high school football field, they could climb the bleachers and see the arches of the McDonald’s and watch families pull into Willie’s Longhorn Steakhouse, long considered “the” fine-dining establishment in Troy Center. Even in Laurie’s family that place is reserved for special occasions: “It’s your birthday, kiddo. We’re going to Willie’s tonight!” On Main Street there’s the co-op and the Stop ‘n Shop, a Chicago’s Daylight Donuts, and a bunch of mom-and-pop shops.
People don’t lock their cars at night. Don’t lock their houses, either, for that matter. That’s the
kind of stuff for the real cities (“Oh, wouldn’t be awful to live someplace like Wichita or Oklahoma City?”), and Laurie knows damn well St. Andrew’s, the Catholic church, doesn’t lock up. What, Laurie wonders, would we keep out? The Clutter murders happened miles away, over twenty years ago. People forget and memories get hazy. In a place like Troy Center, people will trust all over again. She sighs. Enough years of nothing at all will do that.
One night last year she and Dale and Susan and Scott had gotten drunk and snuck into the church after midnight close to Halloween. They came from good, solid Methodist stock and had never been inside the Catholic church, and rumor had it that attendance was so low it might close in the next year. The twenty or so parishioners it had could drive to Halston, which was less than half and hour away and only a little bigger than Troy Center.
As she looks at the lights on top of the grain elevator, which had always seemed so menacing and foreboding to her, she remembers that night in the church. When Dale felt like stirring up some trouble–never anything substantial–he always said the same thing: “Hey. You know what? Can you feel it? It feels a little drunk out here tonight. We better do something about that.”
They were quiet about it that night, but Susan started to giggle when she found that the church really was unlocked, and she held the door for the rest of them as they ran in. What struck Laurie immediately was the smell of incense. Not the kind she was used to, but something different, something that wasn’t active, but something that was sticking around. Something that was permanent, as though it had crept into the carpeting and the woodwork and had found a home there.
The votive candles surprised her, too. There weren’t many, just enough to dimly illuminate the small church in a comforting, hushed way. The ornateness of it compared to her church weighted her down and made her feel small in the wake, she sensed, of something greater. She walked down the main aisle a bit, and if the pews had been cushioned the way they were in her church, she just might have given into the temptation to curl up in one of them and go to sleep forever. That’s when Scott whispered, “Let’s get the hell out of here. This place is giving me the creeps.”
And now, almost a year later, Laurie thinks, That was the most exciting time I’ve ever had in this goddamn, worn-out, bullshit town. That. That was it.
She has been having dreams about that night ever since.
“Hey,” Susan says, and snaps her fingers in Laurie’s ear. “Come on back to reality. The sun’s going down. Davis is getting ready to start things up. I’m going to get some pizza out of the fridge.” She grins. “It might be fun to let those slices warm up their own in this lovely heat and serve that way.”
Laurie turns away from the lights on the grain elevator just as Bobby Birmingham, aged ten, slaps a quarter on the counter and says, “Does this shithole have any Fanta tonight?” And just like that, she hears the Looney Tunes music dully flare out from the speakers in the parking lot. The cartoon before movie has begun, but she’s seen it before. She hands Bobby his soda, and hopes it’s warm as piss.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are cruising along to a Byrds’ song when she feels Dale’s arms slip around her waist from behind. He kisses her neck.
“You shouldn’t be back here,” she says. “Davis has warned you. He thinks it looks trashy. He told Scott to knock it off, too.”
“What’s he going to do about it?” He moves his arms up slowly so he can lightly cup a breast in
each hand. Normally this would tum her on just enough for her to push back against him, a move she knows he loves and expects, but tonight she doesn’t have the energy for even that much.
“Stop,” she says, and pushes him back with her elbow. “It’s too hot.”
“Oh, come on. It really is too hot. I’m just not in the mood for this tonight.”
He flops down in one of the metal folding chairs, leans back, and crosses his boots on the counter as though he owns the place, and this irritates her. She can feel something needling up her spine, and she knows she’s in the mood to start an argument, even though she’d rather not. But I’d rather argue than fuck later on tonight, I know that much.
“Can you get me a Coke with lots of ice?” “Anything else, Your Highness?”
He smirks at her, and his eyes seem to laugh. He’s not taking the bait or playing, so she gets his damn Coke.
“I ran into Susan a few minutes ago. She said you were in a bitchy mood.” “I’ve been wondering where she is.”
“Where do you think, stupid? She’ll be back.”
“Scott’s here, too?”
Dale takes a long draw of his Coke, puts the cup on the ground, and holds out his hands. “Well, aren’t you a genius? Of course he’s here. How could anyone miss all this?”
She pushes his boots off the counter. “You can stay back here, but keep the shit-kickers on the floor. How much have you been drinking tonight?”
He pulls her onto his lap. “Just a little, but not nearly enough. When is the finale tonight?”
“I probably won’t get out of here until the next movie starts. But everything will all be over by two.”
“Get the hell out of here after this bullshit is over.. Davis lets you close this place down after the second feature starts. And you can probably close down even earlier tonight. I mean, what’s the guy going to do? Fire you? Not hire you back? It’s done. We’ll go someplace and make our own movie.”
She groans, but not in the way Dale wants her to, and he pulls back and looks her. So she smiles and kisses his forehead to show she’s meant no harm, even as she’s thinking, Really? Still the same old lines? Laurie lets him kiss her neck, but when she feels his tongue, she wriggles away just playfully enough not to annoy him so she can get a man she doesn’t recognize two medium popcorns and a Snickers.
“Having fun?’ he asks her coldly.
“All the time. Can’t you tell?”
Fun. Yes, I’m having fun. She looks back over her shoulder at Dale, who has probably spiked his Coke, and she wonders when he’ll get to around to asking her to marry him, and what she’ll say. They’ve already started talking about it in an offhand way, as if there wasn’t one more year of high school to get through. If we get through, she reminds herself. Susan doesn’t care one way or the other if she gets pregnant or if she graduates, and Dale has made it clear a diploma doesn’t mean much to him, either. He’s going to take over his father’s garage, and even his father joked one night about how silly high school was when she was over at Dale’s house for dinner: “What the hell are you going to do? Say something to a customer in calculus? Do an oil change and talk to me about the Civil War? Christ. You got some common sense in this world, and that’s all you need. Big scholars. What are all the big scholars in Washington doing other than fucking things up? You need some real men down there, some real people.”
Yes, Laurie thinks. It’s all one big joke. It’s not that it would be a bad life with Dale. He isn’t always joking or trying to get in her pants. He’s never raised a hand to her. They’d have a nice wedding, and a few weeks ago, when she was helping her mother move things around in the attic, he mother had opened up a chest and pulled out Laurie’s grandmother’s wedding dress. “Oh, look at this,” she’d said as she peeled the tissue paper away. Her mother had smiled and walked over to Laurie, held the dress up against her. “I think you’d look pretty in this, when the time comes. You’re a little smaller in the waist than she was, but it wouldn’t take more than a few adjustments here and there. That’s if you like it, of course.”
Of course. As if her mother hadn’t had her mind on that dress the minute they entered the attic. Yes, they’d have a nice wedding. A reception in the church hall or at the community center. A vacation to Wichita or Eureka Springs. But then what? Dale would keep working at the garage until he took it over, she’d get a job in town, maybe as a secretary at Cheatum’s Insurance—Mike Cheatum always told her to come by after she graduated, always asked her if she could type and how many words per minute, and had she taken a shorthand course?—they’d buy a two-bedroom house somewhere in town, and then the kids would come, and then and then and then.
What? she wonders. Jack Nicholson is on the back of Peter Fonda’s bike, and Dennis Hopper isn’t quite pleased, but oh, don’t they look happy on the open and carefree roads. Not a care in the world, and anywhere, anywhere to go.
There’s a Greyhound bus, destination Oklahoma City, that stops at the Conoco Station every Thursday afternoon just after ten-thirty in the morning. She’s been there once, for her father’s sister’s funeral back when she was ten. The memories of that day are faded now, except she remembers it was the one time she saw her father cry, and Laurie remembers the city wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was large enough to frighten her a little, and it was the first time she’d ever seen buildings ten stories high.
She’s done her own building on that city lately, with graduation on the horizon. It’s only a little over two hours away, but she’s been thinking it’s the one place to go where there wouldn’t be many regrets. She wouldn’t tell anyone, of course. Not until she was already gone. She knows she’s not that dumb. If she told anyone beforehand, there would be too many tears, too much begging, too many points made as to why she’d never make it out there on her own. She has enough money stashed away in her bedroom closet to afford the ticket, and she could get a job doing anything to get her started.
Started on what? she thinks as she hands the same annoying little twerp from earlier another Fanta. “Hey,” the kid says. “I gave you a dollar. You owe me seventy-five cents.”
She hands him his change. “I hope your teeth rot,” she says.
“I hope you get crabs,” he replies.
Would the ·what really matter, she wonders. Anything, anything at all. She realizes what she might really want is just a possibility, a chance. A chance for something more, something different. And, at worst, if things didn’t work out, well the same bus that took her there could always take her back home again. She didn’t like to think of failure, but she would at least be able to tell herself that she’d tried. She could smooth things out with her parents, take that job at the insurance company, settle down with Dale—no doubt he’d take her back—buy that home, have those kids.
Despite the heat, despite the sweat under her armpits, despite the smell of stale popcorn and pizza, she was already coming back. She shivers.
Laurie feels Dale’s arms around her waist. She grabs them and holds on.
Hey,” he whispers into her ear. “What’s going on?” She can smell the hint of rum on his breath. “Why so pensive tonight?”
She leans back against him. “You were right.” “About what?”
“What you said earlier. It doesn’t matter anymore, this place. I’ll find Susan. She can take over for the rest of the night. Let’s get out of here.”
“The first show’s almost over.”
“I don’t care. Why should I? Let’s go.”
She finds Susan, who’s just tipsy enough to be good-natured enough to agree to stay through the second feature. Laurie takes Dale’s hand, and they run through the parking lot to his car. She climbs into the Duster, and the seat feels like an embrace.
“Where do you want to go, Princess?” he says as he fires up the engine. He’s smiling at her. She smiles back, and she can tell it’s a bitter smile and hopes he won’t notice. He doesn’t. There’s funny, bitter, tinny taste in her mouth. She looks at the screen. Jack Nicholson’s character is already dead, and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are back on the open road. The LSD trip scene is over, and they’re about to meet up with the rednecks who will be their demise. She’s seen this movie before.
“Just drive,” she says.
He backs up, and they head down the gravel toward the exit to the highway. He takes her hand and gives it a squeeze, and she gives him a gentle squeeze back. Yes, out they’ll head onto the night’s highway: out past the barren fields, past the grain elevators, past the town’s cemetery, into the expanse until they’ve gone far enough and it’s time to turn back, to go home again.
Dale turns on the radio and Laurie rolls her window down and leans back, lets the night wind take her hair. She glances into the rearview mirror and she can see the neon sign of the Starlight fade as Dale hits the gas just before the town’s city limits.
I don’t need to stick around tonight, she thinks. She knows how this movie ends.
Barney’s ancient Chevy rumbled along the cracked asphalt, jolting slightly as it ran over the occasional pothole. He bobbed his head and tapped the steering wheel to the beat. The radio was playing “Highway to Hell”, some old AC/DC song. Barney lived for classic rock, and he loved to go on and on about how lucky he was to catch so many famous shows live when he was young. Owen couldn’t relate, he wasn’t much of a music person, it all sounded like noise to him. He preferred driving with the radio switched off, but Barney said only psychopaths did that and declared that while they worked together, he would expose Owen to “real” music. It had been a month since the two were paired together and Owen still hadn’t changed his mind.
For what must’ve been the thousandth time, Owen wondered why they’d been made partners. He had just graduated from the academy, full of excitement and brimming with purpose when he received news of who he’d be assigned to work under. Barney Mossman. Owen hadn’t known much about him other than that he was a venerated officer with decades of experience in the field. He wasn’t expecting a washed-up alcoholic, reeking of gin and cigarettes. Barney generally showed up to work late and hungover, if he bothered to show up at all. How he was still employed was beyond Owen’s understanding. Whenever he made an appearance, he’d spend the workday waltzing around the office chatting with his buddies, stopping only to drop more paperwork onto Owen’s desk. That was how the new recruit had spent his first month of service, up to his eyeballs in reports. Which was why Owen was overjoyed when Barney randomly decided to respond to a house call.
“Would you get a look at this sunset!” Barney whistled, turning down the radio a notch. “I swear it looks better on this side of the city.”
Owen glanced out the car window as they rolled down the interstate, heading towards the Santo Domingo exit. He watched as the rays of the setting sun drowned everything in a sea of reds and oranges, like the city was on fire.
“You pay it no heed though, it’s just a coincidence that we’re seeing one on the way there,” Barney said.
“What do you mean?” Owen asked, confused at what that had to do with anything.
Barney glanced at him in surprise, removing one of his hands from the steering wheel to scratch at his white stubble for a couple seconds before answering. “Well, you know, there’s an old wives’ tale that’s been around since before I started that says seeing a sunset on the way to your first job is a bad omen.”
Owen’s heartbeat quickened, until he thought about what Barney had just said. “But… they happen every day, the odds of seeing a sunset on any given day are like 10 to 1, what does it matter that it’s during my first assignment?” he asked.
Barney shrugged, “I didn’t say it was true, just a superstition,” with that, he turned the music back up.
“What the f—“ Owen felt a flash of irritation, what was that even supposed to mean? What was the point to Barney telling him that? “He’s just trying to psyche me out,” he reasoned. It wouldn’t work though, Owen had been waiting for this day, throughout the years he’d spent training at the academy. This was his chance to prove himself and be one step closer to the first of many promotions.
They pulled up to the house in the next 15 minutes. It sat at the end of the cul-de-sac, a two-story brick stone, painted in a drab grey. Barney parked on the curb next to a mailbox, with ANDERSON printed on the side and shut off the car. The call had come from a nosy neighbor who hadn’t seen any of the Andersons leave the residence in weeks. They’d also reported
hearing strange noises and seeing pulsing lights the last time the family was home. Owen stepped out into the street, the lawn was unkempt and chock full of weeds. He flipped open the mailbox and saw that it was overflowing. Barney popped the trunk and handed Owen his gladius. The younger man accepted the sword in its scabbard and clipped it to the belt of his pants. Owen straightened his tie, smoothed the wrinkles out of his suit jacket, and took a deep breath. Barney slammed the trunk shut, plucked a hip flask from the folds of his ratty leather jacket, and took a sip while staring at the house.
“You want a swig, before we start?” Barney swiped at the corner of his mouth and wagged the flask in Owen’s direction. “It’s good for nerves,” he said.
“We’re not supposed to drink when we’re on the clock and you know I hate alcohol,” Owen said and walked off.
“Suit yourself,” Barney screwed the cap back on.
Filled with anticipation, Owen strode purposefully around the lawn to the front porch and tried the doorknob. “It’s locked,” he said.
“Most doors are,” Barney replied, walking through the grass towards him.
Ignoring that, Owen looked around, trying to guess where the Andersons hid the spare key. When he’d started to consider smashing a window, Owen saw a flash of silver over his
shoulder and heard a small Shunk. Barney carried two doubled sided axes and had just used one of them to slice through the doorknob. He nudged the door open with his boot and gestured to Owen, “After you.”
Owen blinked and opened his mouth to say something, before deciding to close it instead and march inside. The smell hit him first, the second he crossed the threshold. Reading hundreds of reports and going through simulations hadn’t been enough to prepare him for the stench of death. It was as if someone had left a hundred pounds of hamburger meat to rot in the sun. What he saw after stepping through that door, however, was far worse than the smell.
There was a small dining room to the right of the front door with a thick oak table in the center. There were 4 chairs arranged around the table, with small sequined cushions on the seats of each. Fancy looking plates, napkins, and cutlery lay shattered about the room. Owen noticed something strewn across the table, surrounded by dark stains and lying in shadow. At first, he thought it was some kind of animal, the family pet maybe, but when he squinted, he saw it was a young woman. She looked to be in her twenties, her body was covered in slashes and chunks of flesh were missing. He could also see that she’d been severed at the waist, with just her top half sprawled across the table, her arms hanging limp over the side.
Owen reeled, hands on his knees, trying desperately not to puke at the sight in front of him. Barney stepped in and surveyed the grisly scene, twin axes dangling at his sides. His breathing stayed even, and he looked around with an impassive expression.
“If you feel like you’re gonna puke, do it outside, you wouldn’t want to risk slipping in it,” Barney said.
Owen glanced at the other man sharply, “He barely looks fazed! Just how many times has he seen stuff like this?” he thought. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth, swallowing bile. “I’m fine,” he said stiffly and straightened, drawing his gladius. Barney nodded and walked further into the room. Owen followed him and spotted another corpse lying beside a doorway leading to the kitchen. It was an older woman, and she was in a similar condition to the other person, but with all of her limbs ripped off and her face torn to ribbons. He shook his head and told himself to stay focused, he’d become an officer in the first place to stop scenes like this one from happening. They continued on into the kitchen and found it in a similar condition to the dining room.
Chairs were smashed, the island ripped to pieces, and the cabinets pulled from the walls.
Glass crunched under their feet from an oven that looked like it had been busted into.
“Ya see that?” Barney jabbed one his axes in the direction of the fridge, which lay open and on its side in the middle of the room. “The fridge was cleaned out, along with the pantry and the cabinets,” he said. “There were bites taken out of those bodies too, I’d say we’re dealing with one hungry motherfucker.”
He stepped around the fridge and walked in the direction of the den, before freezing in his tracks. “Kid you’re gonna love this, come here. Quietly.” Owen crept around his partner and peered through the doorway. It was a large den, with art hanging on the walls and lavish furniture filling the space. The only light came from a small chandelier hanging from the tall ceiling, bathing the room in warm hues. The room might’ve been used for fancy dinner parties once upon a time. It lay in ruins now, the artwork slashed, the chandelier dangling from a thread, and a demon sleeping in the middle of the room.
“That’s a Ravager demon, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen one, they’re pretty rare,” Barney said with a grin, “They’re tough bastards too, talk about one helluva fight for your first job, ay kid?”
Owen’s stomach dropped and his palms started sweating. Imagine a lobster and a scorpion get together and have a baby, and the resulting hell spawn grew to be bigger than a horse. That’s a ravager. Ravagers were covered in thickly plated armor, sported two massive claws, and a tail ending in a stinger as long as Owen’s forearm.
“Shiiiiiiiit,” Owen thought with rising panic and his palms started to sweat.
“There’s a pentagram on other the side of the room and a body that I’m betting was our summoner laying right next to it,” Barney said.
The corpse belonged to a man, dressed in fine clothes, with a shiny amulet and multiple rings on his fingers. There was some sort of tome lying next to him, its edges worn and several symbols carved into the cover. The man had been disemboweled, the soft pink flesh of his intestines spilled out onto the floor, with him curled up next to them. His body was otherwise untouched, with no bites or gashes marring it. The pentagram had been drawn in white chalk but looked wrong, the lines sloppy and the circle much too small for a demon of this size.
“Looks like a classic demon summoning gone wrong, the ravager probably broke the circle immediately, killed the caster for summoning it, and ate the others.” Barney shook his head, “What I don’t understand is why anyone would want to conjure a ravager of all things, a djinn to grant you wishes maybe, or a group of succubi, I could understand, but this?”
Owen’s thoughts raced. Many species of demon could use magic to complete requests when summoned. Provided the caster could successfully restrain one, any number of deals could be made for the appropriate price. If you wanted immortality, you could sacrifice a child, for endless wealth the demon would take half of your lifespan, to kill an enemy simply give up pieces of your own body. Ravagers weren’t capable of using magic though and were just mindless brutes. He could only assume that the Andersons had been trying to summon something much more manageable and failed.
“R-Ravagers are classified as a B tier demon species, and incredibly difficult to kill, the officer handbook doesn’t advise taking one on with a standard two-man team,” Owen said nervously, “We should call for backup.” The ranking system went from E to A, with demon species in the latter tier able to threaten cities.
Barney whipped out his hip flask and drained it in a couple gulps before answering, “Nonsense, we’re all we need for this one.”
Before Owen could offer a retort, Barney hurled his empty flask at the sleeping demon. It pinged harmlessly off the ravager’s hide and hit the ground with a loud clang. Three sets of black eyes clicked open as the creature shifted and turned towards them. It stared at the two of them for a second, before letting loose an ear-splitting screech and charging.
“Sink or swim, kid!” Barney shouted and dove in. He took a swipe at one of its legs before dipping around to the demon’s flank. The ravager spun around and did an about face in seconds, striking at him with a claw. Its pincers only clicked on air though as Barney dodged to the side with the speed of greased lightning. He whacked at the claw with an axe and took a chunk from the carapace.
Owen watched as the 53-year-old man went toe-to-toe with a ravager, hacking and slashing with reckless abandon, brackish puddles of demon blood already littering the floor. Barney ducked and dived the ravager’s quick strikes, laughing all the while.
“How can he move like that?” Owen wondered. It was if he was untouchable, for all the luck the demon seemed to be having in hitting him. Their uniforms and weapons were enchanted to protect and strengthen them when killing demons. In order for them to use guns, each bullet would need to be enchanted separately. The city had decided it was more cost efficient to supply their officers with melee weapons, like swords and axes instead. But the runes could only take so much punishment. A couple of good strikes from such a powerful demon would be enough to seriously maim one of them, or worse. And yet he’d run in without any hesitation.
Fear filled every cell of his being, but Owen knew he couldn’t give up here. He needed to succeed and move up in the department. He drew his sword with shaking hands and ran in.
Barney looked at him and grinned and the two began coordinating attacks.
“Keep your eyes on me, you fat fuck!” Barney yelled, drawing the ravager’s attention by leaping up and taking a swipe at its face. When it turned to him, Owen slashed at its flank, his blade cutting deep. The demon whipped around and swung its tail at him, he ducked, barely evading in time, feeling the demon’s flesh lightly graze his hair.
“Attaboy!” Barney shouted and struck one of the demon’s legs at the joint, slicing clean through and severing the limb. The two of them kept on like this, with Barney using his speed to execute brazen attacks against the demon and keep it focused on him, leaving it open to Owen’s blows. They were managing to slowly wear the beast down and it looked like they were close to killing it.
Owen raced forward to slice through one of the ravager’s damaged claws, hoping to sever the appendage, when he slipped in a puddle of its blood. The world turned sideways as his feet went out from under him and he fell to the floor. Not wasting a second, the demon went to smash his head in with one of its thick claws. Time slowed; Owen knew he wasn’t fast enough to get to his feet in time. He looked into the ravager’s black eyes and saw nothing there, no hatred or wicked glee, just the cold indifference of an insect. Owen saw a flash of movement even faster than the demon, and all of a sudden Barney was there, standing in front of him.
The demon struck him full on from the side and turned into the blow, catapulting Barney through the air. He soared across the room and crashed into a door, before smashing through it and falling into darkness. Owen heard several thumps followed by silence. It sounded like Barney had been thrown down the basement stairs.
“No!” Owen cried and stood. “Barney, are you alright?” He couldn’t hear anything over the demon’s chittering as it dove at him.
The ravager tried to pinch him between one of its claws, but he deflected the sharp pincer with the flat of his gladius. All he had to do was somehow keep pace with this thing and edge towards the basement door to check on Barney. He raised his blade for an overhead strike and felt a sudden burning pain in his side. Owen screamed in agony and glanced down to see the ravager’s stinger embedded in the flesh. He’d forgotten about its tail! It was as if he’d been stabbed, and he could already feel a tingling numbness as the venom spread through his body.
Ravager venom acted as a neurotoxin, quickly filling the victim’s veins, and paralyzing the body, before eventually stopping the heart. The latter effect was rarely the cause of death though, as ravagers typically tore their prey apart as soon as they stopped moving. Owen’s legs
crumpled and his fingers turned leaden, the sword slipping from his grasp. The demon’s claws snapped shut on his midsection. His suit’s runes prevented him from getting chopped in half, but the sheer pressure from the ravager’s claw still broke some of his ribs. The pain was excruciating, and a garbled scream fell from his numb lips. The demon’s mandibles opened wide, and it lifted him towards its mouth. And then its head exploded.
Owen was soaked in demon blood and gore as the ravager released him and sagged forward, dead. The quivering handle of one of Barney’s axes lay embedded deeply in the creature’s brain. The sheer relief Owen felt as the old man stepped into view was palpable. Barney was covered in bruises and one of his arms hung at an awkward angle, but he was beaming at Owen.
“I told ya it would be one helluva a first job, didn’t I?” he laughed. “I called for backup a couple minutes ago so the paramedics should be here soon.” He grabbed Owen under the armpit with his good hand and began to drag him to the exit. “And if you survive, drinks are on me!” It was the last thing he heard before falling unconscious.
Max was on his way to visit his beloved Tante Appoline. As a child, Max, the third son of the Lorseignacs, had often been a guest of his father’s distant cousin. Never married, she lived alone in Caen with her parrot, Brézil, for company. A maid came in daily. It had all started with his need to recover from scarlet fever. Tante Appoline had spoiled him, speaking to him as if he were a young man instead of a little boy, which had been most flattering. She had listened to his tales with great seriousness—a seriousness sometimes punctuated with laughter. She had granted him endless requests to go to the beach, take boat trips, and eat ice cream sold from small, two-wheel contraptions pushed around the marketplace of the old town.
They had played checkers or cards way past his bedtime, after which she’d let him sleep late in the morning, he remembered fondly. She had always instructed her maid to serve his favorite foods, which included chocolate croissants, almond-with-pear tarts, roast beef with gravy, or grilled baby lamb chops—marvels that never figured on the menu of the Villa Florence.
She had told him once that it was the sky that had invented birds to prove how variously it moved. This, he knew, she’d told him to justify her own love of birds, especially colorful ones.
It had been a treat to have an adult’s attention all to himself, especially one who shared his curiosity about fish and seaweed, rocks and caves, and fishermen’s boats and gear. Had he been a little pest to her? He couldn’t tell. He smiled at the memory of Tante Appoline, who used to say, “I may be old, but I’m not yet useless.” He also remembered wistfully making sure no one at home knew, on his return, how much he’d loved his visit to Tante Appoline. He’d wanted no competition.
He’d kept in touch with her intermittently. She had been one of the two witnesses at his marriage at City Hall (the other being his wife’s sister) since his parents refused to meet Mireille, who was almost five years older than he. That discrepancy had been a stroke against her. There were worse. His mother had found his choice of mate unsuitable, because “That woman is nothing but une petite arriviste trying to ensnare my son, who should remain what she is, where she is, a couturiere de quartier, a little neighborhood seamstress.” What would be the point of telling her that Mireille had successfully completed her training as Assistante Sociale, a social worker, so that when she handled fabrics nowadays, it was only to make drapes for their windows or an occasional dress for herself.
Besides the pleasant prospect of spending time with his beloved aunt, Max hoped to achieve other goals. He needed to leave Paris for a while. This trip should give the Paris police and the Gestapo a chance to run after greater criminals and forget about him by doing so. And since Appoline knew everyone in town, she might help him find a specialized engineer without advertising his needs.
He had written, asking Tante Appoline to spend a few days with her, talking of olden days. After all, he was a journalist. She was in her nineties, and he longed, even more now than he had as a child, to hear about her life before he was born.
He’d received no letter in answer. He wasn’t surprised, since the mail was so often dreadfully delayed. The telephone to provincial towns was often erratic and communications disrupted.
“I can’t hear you, Tante Appoline,” he had screamed into the telephone. “Can you hear me? What? There’s jamming on the line! I said…” The call had been terminated and could not be resumed. It was hopeless. Having discussed it with his wife, Max had decided to leave all the same, hoping his arrival would not inconvenience the old lady.
He left home at daybreak to take the first train of the day, which was cancelled without explanation. Then, instead of four hours, the train from Paris took eight hours to reach Caen. In the train, to avoid looking through the rain at the devastated and plundered countryside, which some day would need to be brought back to health, Max thought of Appoline in her twenties and thirties, when Pasteur had proved that fermentation was caused by living organisms. She was young still when the first Paris underground Metro was put into circulation, when Baron de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games in 1894, or was it 1895? And when the Titanic had sunk. She had survived the 1914 war and the great influenza epidemic. She must have read in the newspapers about the Zeppelin disaster shortly after it happened. She was living history, he thought. A treasure. There was so much he wanted to hear about her life. He almost forgot about his need of valuable introductions.
Outside Caen’s train station, no orderly line of taxis or buses idled since gasoline was no longer available for public transport. The Germans requisitioned it all. Instead, bicycle rickshaws waited in a straggly line. He hailed the closest one.
He gave Appoline’s address, 27 rue des Colombes.
The bicycle driver turned around. “You sure?”
“Yes, of course.” Max climbed in and secured his traveling bag on his lap. There were puddles all around. The young man pedaled away along the rue Martinville with its ancient, half-timbered houses, before turning in to deserted side streets. It didn’t trouble Max. It was the same in Paris, except that more black Peugeot German cars circulated on the main arteries.
After twenty minutes or so, the vélo-taxi, the bicycle driver, stopped and turned to him. “I’ll only charge you three francs,” he said, panting, a hand still on the handlebar.
“Won’t you take me all the way?”
“It’s across that intersection. We were bombed again last night, see. Nothing cleared yet. Too much junk for me to ride over.”
Now he understood the reluctance of the driver. All the houses on the rue des Colombes had been evacuated. An acrid smell of burnt wool, wood, and rubber filled the air. Stunned, Max took in mountains of debris from broken furniture, split, overturned paving stones, and half-burnt mattresses dumped amid ash and bricks and gravel on what had been a quiet residential street. He paid his fee, grabbed his half-empty bag—he had chosen an extra-large one, hoping to bring food home from the country—and stepped out of the vélo-taxi. He walked across the intersection filled with lumpy rubble and stopped to inspect the damage.
He picked his way around a wide crater in front of number 27, where Appoline’s house, shoulder to shoulder with others, had stood for over four hundred years. The ends of frayed and blackened drapes floated into the street from the third floor, while next door, a crib balanced over the edge of the torn-away facade. A piano at a slant was jammed into an empty window frame.
Watching where he put his feet among broken glass, torn pipes, and tangled wires, he stepped on a doll’s head and a twisted silver spoon. Looking up again, he recognized the stylized purple flowers of the wallpaper Appoline had once let him choose for her sitting room. Her furniture was tossed among mortar, torn lathes, broken dishes, lumpy clothes, and plaster.
Dear God, how dreadfully upset Appoline must be, if alive. Was she alive? What a mess… Max suddenly saw what a void her absence would create in his life. She was dearer to him than either of his own grandmothers.
Let her be alive, he prayed silently to a God he no longer believed in. Instead of the imposing, bearded God from his Sunday school days, his prayer flew toward Fernand’s powerful back. Mysterious Fernand, his father’s chauffeur, who drove impassively behind a glass partition in charge of the lives of his passengers, who could only wait and hope to reach their destination.
As if shoved out by a hidden hand from the half-destroyed building, a shrieking object plummeted near Max’ head and settled on his shoulder before he thought of protecting his face.
“Brézil!” Appoline’s parrot! Max almost laughed from surprise. He had not known the old bird was still alive. Long before this ghastly war, Appoline had taught him to scratch the bird’s head close to his wide ivory beak, and how to let him perch on his outstretched hand or hang his vivid blue and emerald body upside down from his index fingers. It was unlikely that the bird remembered him.
The bird must have only been looking for a convenient perch. Max chose to believe that finding Brézil, or rather, Brézil finding him, was a good omen. Dropping his suitcase, he plucked the bird off his shoulder and caressed the hyacinth-blue neck. To test him, Max spoke the words he used to hear Brézil utter: “Be kind or be quiet. What a charmer! Too much of a good thing is very good for me!”
Brézil fixed him with small, round eyes, blinked his vertical eyelids, but didn’t make a sound. Was he a cockatoo or a macaw? Weren’t cockatoos from Australia? He returned the bird to his shoulder. “Allons, Brézil. Come, Brézil, we have to find her.”
With the brilliant blue bird on his shoulder, he picked up his bag and resumed stepping around trash, wood beams, dirty water, twisted garbage cans, and smelly rubbish spilled along the way, watching the town reflected brokenly in the many puddles.
Hearing someone clearing his throat, he hurried toward the footsteps.
“You’re a resident?” a graying policeman in a dark cape and cap asked suspiciously, and, peering at Brézil, “He speaks?” he asked.
Max was grateful not to be asked for his papers. One of his sets was false, but he couldn’t remember which pocket held which. “Oh, no! He doesn’t talk anymore. He’s my great-aunt’s bird, but he knows me. This is her house, or used to be.” He pointed to the building sliced open across the street. “As a child, I used to stay with her in the summer. Maybe you know her. Mademoiselle Montarnis. She’s in her nineties.”
“Can’t say I do. This isn’t my regular beat, see. I’m alone to make sure there’s no looting on twenty-six square blocks on each of my rounds,” he growled. “It’s a joke, I tell you. Well, not your problem. Must keep going. You go to the elementary school. It’s closed, but the church runs it as a shelter. They’ll help you. Third right after the next two craters. Can’t miss it.”
The school door was open. A few dazed people wandered in and out. In the center of the muddy hallway, on a portable blackboard, someone had jotted down the names of survivors. Appoline’s name wasn’t on the list. As Max turned away, a middle-aged couple, leaning on each other, made clucking noises in an attempt to make Brézil talk.
“He doesn’t talk anymore,” Max explained. Suddenly it seemed to him that the joyous, vibrant colors of the bird on his shoulder were an insult to the broken landscape and those wandering in it. He put his travel bag down by the door. He lifted Brézil from his shoulder and let him climb several times from one of his hands to the other, murmuring to him. Then smoothing down his feathers, he inserted the bird into his front shirt pocket inside his pullover. Only the bird’s head peered out. Brézil twisted about at first but didn’t resist. At least he’d be warm.
A nun directed him to the Mother House, farther down the avenue, where another blackboard listed its refugees. An identical nun sent him to yet another shelter, so that Max backtracked, and read yet another blackboard covered with a collection of names, listed, not in alphabetical order, this time, but by order of arrival.
Behind women with scarves knotted under their chins and an old man chewing an empty pipe, holding the hand of a tearful boy of about five, Max scanned those listed and shivered. Soon it would be dark. In the unheated building, dampness added to the cold. He had not eaten all day. Discouragement was about to take hold of him when he noticed a name chalked sideways on a corner on the board: Analette Montarnis! He extracted Brézil from his shirt pocket. The bird shook itself and flew clumsily back to his shoulder. “Ready?” he asked the bird, knowing he would not hear the charming old phrases the bird used to utter when they were both younger.
The parrot swelled and trembled, ruffling every feather of his blue-green body.
“Saperlipopette! Rejetez les lubies d’un peintre en bâtiment, troisieme classe! Il finira pendu.” Hang it all! Reject the antics of a third-rate housepainter. He’ll end up on the gallows,” Brézil shrieked as he rose above Max’s head.
Before Max could run and catch him, from the far end of the dim hallway bordered by classroom doors, a woman with a cane advanced steadily toward him. A mass of disheveled hair sat high on her head. Behind her, a tapestry bag bumped on the floor at the end of a length of rope tied to her waist. Like a chip of brilliant sky, a bird on her shoulder nibbled her long earlobes. She looked delightfully like a goddess in disguise from a forgotten fairy tale.
Max ran to her, a thousand questions swirling in his mind about her fear, her losses, and how she’d managed to escape from her house.
“Oh, there you are!” Appoline said, a hand behind her ear. “I thought I heard your voice.” She took his arm affectionately as if they’d only been briefly separated at some garden party. “We can leave whenever you want, mon chéri. Darling, I’ve got my essentials right here,” she said, tugging at the rope. Max was wondering whether she’d lost her mind when Appoline added, “The only problem is, where can we go?”
While Appoline went to say her goodbyes in the refectory, Max used the telephone in the school office to call his parents. “Allo, allo! Madame Lorseignac, s’il vous plait.”
“Who is this?” He heard his mother’s guarded voice.
“C’est moi, Max.”
“Max? My Max? Is it really you, after all this time?”
“Maman, écoute. Listen, the line might be cut any time. I wonder whether I could come with a friend.”
“A friend?” Her voice dropped. “I see. A woman friend?”
“A great friend! Someone you’ll enjoy.”
“We cannot entertain guests a l’improviste, without warning, Max! Our ration cards are hardly sufficient to feed us,” she complained. “And young people have such immoderate appetites.”
“She’s not exactly what you’d call young.” Max smiled wryly, guessing his mother had assumed he was talking about Mireille.
“You live without ever contacting us and choose to live immorally,” she said.
Was it reproaches or hurt pride he heard in her voice? “Don’t worry, Maman. My sweetheart and I married three years ago. So forget about concubinage, as you…” Max said, feeling the return of an old, familiar irritation.
“You married an older woman!” she exclaimed.
“Look, Maman. The line may be ja…”
“Phone lines from Chanflory to Paris and back function perfectly well,” she asserted.
Why must she always have the last word? “I’m not in Paris, Maman! We are in a shelter. There have been devastating bombings last night in—”
She interrupted. “Don’t lecture me about bombings, Max. I read the papers, you know. Shall I tell your father you might drop in?”
“This isn’t about me!” he shouted, exasperated. “Tante Appoline’s house was hit last night! She has nothing left to her name except a tapestry bag, and nowhere to go.” He neglected to mention Brézil.
“Appoline? Oh, poor Appoline!” his mother cried. “Why didn’t you say so? Of course she must come to live with us! Bring her right away.”
Max set aside his neglected goals. “She saved all her food coupons, you’ll be glad to know,” he couldn’t resist adding.
“She’s not to worry! We have more than enough. Tell her…”
With a click, the line went dead.
Rosella Marie Moreno
The Haunt and the Hunt
Two fawns wander into the lake to play, but drown instead. They come out as women. One stays inside the forest and never strays, grows old, and has children of her own. The other one stands on the shoreline and looks out to the murky water for years, having succumbed to an inexplicable restlessness, and a feeling of mysterious, impending dread each summer when the sun threatens to dry up the lake. Like a blessing and a prophecy come true, hell befell the ecosystem, exposing the skeletons, freeing the ghosts of the fawns. The women wandered back to the bottom of the lake in a daze, rummaging through dead fish, tires, pebbles, more bones until they came to their own. The bird on the tree saw the whole thing—it used to fly, it used to sing, it used to pray and when it witnessed the remains, the bird lost its mind. It flew to the roof of a house, prayed out of anxiety, plucked out all its feathers and its eyes, and down the chimney, it sacrificed itself, casting a spell, and entrapping its song.
I stop my car in the middle of the street and look out my window with a need for chaos. I fall asleep at the wheel and dream that I have a gun. I shoot at every tire in sight, so that they have nowhere to go. I wrap a chain around the neighborhood and lasso it into the sun, leaving one house behind. I am only feeling. I wake up and no one is around to see me. How long have I been here? This place of muteness, poisonous desire, invisibility and singularity, in front of this faded, salmon-colored house where the people sleeping have no idea. Or, they have an idea, but do not care.
I drive away.
A mind that’s twenty-six-years-old. What are the odds that the man bagging the groceries is him? The one that waves while crossing the street, the bank teller, the one that works at the pizza parlor, or the one that holds the door open for me.
I expect for something to be exchanged, suddenly and silently, as if the meeting could detonate a bomb, detonate my eyes, my mind, my heart, or have every stray cat run toward oncoming traffic, simply from our proximity. I have been searching. Have you seen me? Smiling with my sister in photographs? Walking around the mall? Would you know that it’s me, before I realize it’s you? Are you looking for me, too?
I’ve moved through life with this rhetorical question and have dragged myself to a crossroads. I could continue searching. I could hold my gaze with strange men, squint to connect noses, lips, hand size and color, let their voices hang in my ears to see if I hear the past in their hellos. I could continue to hope that though the years have taken me far away from her, the child I once was could find him anywhere, and sense the sickening intentions that took me out of my body as a girl and would displace me again as a woman. I could go to the police station.
“I’d like to report a crime.”
Would they sigh in exasperation? Would they do their job?
Or I could let go—I could leave this part of myself behind. I could go to this child and rock her so she sleeps, forever. I could go to this woman, take her by the hand, hum a song and rock her too. I could take off her shoes, bathe her, guide her head to the pillow, kiss her mouth, and she would place her hand on my trembling chin to steady my guilt. I could run far and hard and hope that she finally rests her eyes and ears, and lets me go, too.
There was so much momentum when the truth came out and we let it wash over us—down our head, to our toes, and into the drain, turning this sacrament into a hot mist that fogged every mirror in our home. When I went to clean one mirror, a silent movie: two girls, one in a red cami and baby blue overalls, and the other in a frilly, baby-pink dress with flowers, chasing each other up the mountain, rolling back down, racing back up to roll down again—and out the mirror came a breeze that cooled our tears and caressed our cheeks; it carried a revelation in the echo of a young girls giggle—untouched and unaware. We were free, and then we weren’t.
When the fog didn’t dissipate, we bought new mirrors that cracked before us. We lived with no mirrors. We lived more strongly in conversations about the weather and such until it made no sense to live any other way. I carried the echo in a locket and at night the echo was a lullaby. I opened it at the dinner table and no one heard a thing. What was the use? I opened the window, and I let it float away from me.