Nineteen

“Can you please go see your doctor?”

Russell asked this question every day, by text or by voicemail or in person. Most of the time Sophie didn’t reply, and when she did, she said she’d think about it.

“I’ll think about it,” said Sophie. She stared into her mug, at the brown rings inside, ghosts of hot chocolate past. “It’s your turn.” She pointed to the Jenga tower in front of them, in its final perilous stages.

Russell sighed. The son of AIM devotees, Russell Means Merriweather was an impotent echo of his namesake. Pudgy, featureless, and brown, he looked like a cigar with glasses.

“Can you think extra hard this time?” he asked, lenient, a parent asking a three year old to eat broccoli. The revolution that was meant to run in his blood must have skipped a generation. He took his turn, coaxing out a piece from the very bottom of the tower. It wobbled, threatening to topple, but Russell had never lost a game of Jenga in his life. Sophie knew that when she took her move, she would lose.

Sophie didn’t answer, just looked around the café. Shelves flooded with board games, hipsters and their Nutella lattes. She liked going here because it reminded her she still looked normal, at least. Her face wasn’t hideously disfigured, no extra eyes or noses. She still had her hair.

“If you’re worried about it,” pressed Russell, “I can go with you.”

Too late for that, Russ. “Thanks,” she said. “I’ll think about it.”

Of course, she had gone to the doctor about the insomnia. And that was the only thing she told him, because there was nothing else to notice. No seizures, no vomiting, no personality changes, not even bad headaches. She submitted to the blood tests and scans in good faith, just ruling out the scary stuff. She thought it might have been her diet. It was a brain tumour.

For the greater part of her life, Sophie had thought that cancer was something that happened to people’s grandparents, not even her own – just “people’s.” When she met Russell, she learned that it was something that could happen to parents, too. But Russell’s dad was old, and Sophie was not. She knew, vaguely, that some children had cancer. She’d seen them in ads for the lottery and on Christmas specials. But those kids hadn’t started their lives for real yet. Somehow, she was under the impression that they too would all be nineteen eventually. After all, nineteen is an age for living. Nineteen was for backpacking across Europe, hanging out in board game cafés, laughing off bad dates and eating cereal for dinner. She knew she was technically an adult, but she didn’t have to be. She was supposed to be living. So what was this?

The doctor explained her options: radiation, chemo, surgery. They could go in that order, he said. Sophie said okay, took the prescription. She did a Google search after that appointment. “Adjusting,” said the internet. “Coping,” and “Grief.” She didn’t understand how she felt. Not like she was dying, just like something had changed. She felt the way she did when she moved out of her parents’ house, when she started at the University of Toronto, and when she switched majors for the first time. But those things all meant possibility. Hope. She didn’t know what this meant, not yet.

“You should at least tell your parents,” said Russell. “Haven’t they noticed how tired you look?”

Sophie raised an eyebrow at him. “You know they haven’t.”

She picked up her spoon and ran it around the rim of her mug, feeling Russell’s eyes, lost puppy eyes, pleading with her. Her parents had wanted a dog, not a child, but they wouldn’t have minded having Russell.

“You remember when my mom yelled at me for visiting during ‘church hours’?” asked Sophie. “They weren’t even at church. My mom’s argument was that they could have been, and it was disrespectful of me not to think of that.”

“Oh,” said Russell. The shape of his breath congealed in the air, ‘oh.’

The MRI machine felt like being in a coffin beneath a construction site. Constant noise and no escape.  She focused on counting her breaths, seeing them in the air, ‘oh,’ frozen in the buzz of the machine. ‘Oh.’ After forty five minutes, it was over. She slid out of the hospital gown, which was surprisingly soft, like old pyjamas. She put on her shoes, her earrings, her band t-shirt, the trappings of being normal and nineteen and alive, and she left the hospital.

She went in for one round of chemo and radiation therapy. It made her feel like she was dying. She was too weak to text Russell, “I’ll think about it.” She tried to count her breath as her guts squeezed out of her like toothpaste over the toilet. This medicine was worse than cancer, and she wondered how Russell’s dad or the kids on TV had done it.

Over time, her voicemail filled with missed appointments. When the voicemail reached its limit, she didn’t bother clearing it. The medication on her bedside table began to gather dust. On a need-to-know basis, so far, no one needed to know. The insomnia was between her and her Netflix account. The rest was safely locked behind doctor-patient confidentiality. She wasn’t sure when she’d tell Russell, when she’d tell her parents. She wasn’t even sure if she’d tell them at all.

But yes, according to her word, she’d think about it.

Advertisements

The Hunter’s Handbook

 

The Kill:

The sound of a gunshot has always startled him, even when he is the one behind the gun. For a moment, all birdsong stops and the forest holds its breath in respect for the fallen. Shot through the neck, the doe drops instantly. As he walks closer, he sees that her side is still heaving. Not dead, poor thing, not dead yet. His lips move, but no sound comes out as he prays for her. Her eyes, the already bulging and frightened eyes of a deer, are wild with terror and the stench of death that seeps red from her neck.

He kneels, puts a hand to her shoulder. She is as warm as sunlight. Her body shakes with the effort of breathing, and as she dies, she is too exhausted to pull away. He draws her head into his lap, smoothing her fur. He speaks gentle words in a soft voice to help guide her from this world to the next. He apologizes, hopes that she forgives him. Her eyes close now, halfway, the eyes of his daughter falling asleep. He strokes her neck with one hand, apologizing once more as he slits her throat. He thanks her for this life, this life which is his now. He and Abigail can make it through December with her meat and her hide. Her eyes shudder closed, and he holds her still as the initial gush of blood tapers into a slow stream. He begins to sing Jerusalem, but he only gets one verse in before forgets the words and has to switch to Amazing Grace. His song rises and disappears through the leaves of the oak trees.

Field Dressing:

His father taught him how to gut a deer when he was nine, and he will teach Abigail when she is nine. He cuts out the anus first, a circular motion that reminds him of carving a jack-o’-lantern. Next he removes the milk sac. A few white drops land on the forest floor, and one on the back his hand. He licks it. It tastes bitter, a hint of turpentine, but that could just be the taste of his skin. It occurs to him that this doe may have children somewhere, that he would be feeding his child at the expense of hers.

He moves up her belly, enthralled by how easily the skin splits under his knife. He peels the fur back and reaches in to detach the diaphragm. With that cut, he can begin to lift the rest of the viscera, several slimy masses which come out at once. It strikes him how much the stomach feels like a water balloon, slipping as he clutches it between bloody fingers.

Like peeling an orange, his father had told him. Keep the fruit intact.

He spreads the innards across the plastic tarp he has brought for this purpose. He works quickly, separating the organs into plastic bags. Sausage, dog food, burgers. Honor all of her. He takes extra care in extracting the heart and the liver from the mass of offal. He knows people who would eat the heart raw, but Abigail is only six and her meat should be cooked.

He is finished within half an hour.

Getting Home:

Now he must drain the carcass of excess blood by draping it over a log. When he gets home, he will leave her on a frame overnight to dry thoroughly. He will sit guard all night with a pot to bang in case the coyotes get too close. The offal was a third of her weight, so the blood is less heavy than it is a mess. As he tugs at the carcass, her ears twitch and her skin jumps. Her legs buck, straightening as if they can once again sustain her own weight. For a brief moment, she is alive again and trying to run. But as soon as he lets go, she falls.

After fifteen minutes, during which time he loads the offal into the back of his pickup, he removes her from the log. He has to remind himself that the carcass is not really dancing, not really moving. He pulls her onto a tarp, as gently as he can, and brushes the dirt from her fur. He lays her on her side, as she was when he shot her, and tucks her legs closer to her body. He wraps her up in the tarp, swaddling her the way he swaddled infant Abigail.

Before he can leave the forest, he pulls out the pouch of tobacco from around his neck, a gift from his grandfather. He scatters a pinch over the bloody leaves, and he scatters a prayer into the wind.

He drags the tarp to his truck, taking care to steer his load away from stones and protruding roots. If you don’t respect her, Grandfather said, you’re just a killer.

Processing:

The first time Abigail saw a dead deer, she had thought it was a pet. She stroked its head and wondered why it wouldn’t lick her face like the dog did. Now she understands. She gathers daisies from the garden and tucks them behind the doe’s ears. She thanks her father in heaven and her father on earth and she thanks the doe on bent knees.

Tonight, they will have something more than cornmeal. They will fry the doe’s heart and eat it with onions and celery and thyme. And they will live, at least, through December.

The Market, first draft

Ugh, this is a very sloppy story, but I wanted to get this draft over and done. The pacing is breakneck and distracted, the characters are underdeveloped, but hey – it’s a start: 

Neil almost tripped over the bundle. It was small, but solid, and it snuck under his foot as he walked. It was wrapped in newspaper, slightly crusty and bearing last Wednesday’s date. A dirty piece of twine bound the package together.  Neil, because he had no sense of standards anymore, reached down and picked it up. He turned it over in his hands; it felt gritty to the touch, but that was the streets of New York for you. As he unwrapped it, the newspaper peeled stickily off whatever was inside, which smelled a little rotten. Someone had probably dropped a cut of pork. He wondered if it was still salvageable, though street meat that literally came from the street was likely not his best dinner option.

Well fuck.  

It was not a cut of pork. Not unless a cut of pork looked like a human hand, webbed with browning blood. Neil dropped the package but it clung to his hand. The twine had tangled his fingers to the bundle. He shook his hand as violently as he could, and the whole package, hand and all, smacked into the brick wall of the building next to him, slumping back onto the sidewalk. He looked around hurriedly, but it was nearly midnight in the financial district and the only other person on the block was speaking to his hat. The police. He had to get to the police. This was the last thing he wanted to do with his evening, but if he didn’t deal with this he had no idea who would. Maybe the hat guy.

Neil, glad he was wearing gloves, repackaged the hand and stowed it in his pocket with a grimace. The police department was just up Broadway, and he could get there in about ten minutes if he hurried. A breath of autumn night air brushed across his forehead, and he realized how much sweat he had accrued. As he walked, keeping his head down, his legs mechanical, he thought about what he was going to say. How the hell was he supposed to explain this? Would they just listen to him, or would they keep him around behind bars? He had no way to prove his innocence, unless he wanted to find the hat guy and bring him for a testimony. But he doubted that the hat guy would be of much help. As he turned a corner onto a narrower street, he felt a tongue of metal press into his neck. He squeaked. Something in his stomach gave way, and his heart fell in.

“Relax, sonny Jim,” said a voice from behind his shoulder. It was broad and flattened, like a broken nose, a little too loud and clear for the situation. “This isn’t a gun,” said the voice.  The cold metal didn’t feel like it would be a gun; it was thin and blunt, but Neil was not eager to take his chances. “Give me the package.”  A wisp of Jamaican accent ribboned through his words.

Neil held the package out in front of him, and a grizzled brown hand darted from the streetlamp shadows to take it. “Thanks, Jim,” said the voice. “Now turn around.”

Neil did as he was told, and as he turned, slowly, stiffly, he met the cracked brown eyes of an old man with a mane of gray dreadlocks and a clean suit. “I’m Razis,” said the old man. He smiled, a white gash carved into the front of his face. The effect was odd, more friendly than threatening. “Welcome to a bright new world. Take a deep breath.”

Before Neil could react, Razis grabbed his hand and pulled him into an alleyway he had had no idea existed. They hurtled past dusty posters, dumpsters, and old wire, until they reached a metal doorway at the end of the alley. They stopped, and Razis banged on the door with a few thick thuds. Neil was going to die. Fuck shit fuck. He was going to die.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” said Razis with a chuckle.  “Just a little show-and-tell.” His words floated to the roofs of the surrounding buildings, as Neil half fainted into the blackened doorway. He vaguely felt a tug on his upper arm, partially dragging him, partially walking through a close-set passageway. Sparks fluttered behind Neil’s eyelids as his consciousness battled against the need to crap his pants. A clatter and another thump later, and Neil’s obscured vision was blown open with a burst of light.

“Welcome,” said Razis. Neil’s eyes wavered open, and he could see a dimly lit room, cavernous, brown brick and yellow light melting over the stench of raw meat. “This is the Market.” Razis reached somewhere, and before Neil knew it he received a splash of water to the face. He sputtered and blinked, his bubbly vision coming together into clarity. Razis’ grin met his still unfocused gaze. “This is where the magic happens, Jim.”

Neil wanted a moment to breathe, to collect his thoughts, but Razis rushed him through time without a backwards glance. Humming “Light My Fire,” Razis led him further into the room. On either side of them were rows and rows of white-clothed tables stacked with Styrofoam coolers. The coolers had sharpie labels indicating their contents, which Neil did not care to explore. The tables were manned by eerily respectable-looking people, but like Razis, something seemed off about each of them. Their faces tilted, greasy hair, cracked glasses, frayed cuffs, missing buttons. Not that it was easy to tell, but Neil would focus on anything other than the Styrofoam coolers. Razis kept his hand on Neil’s arm, not that there was any way to run, and Neil would be hard put to move any more quickly than he already was. He could barely stand with his knees weak and his heart flapping loosely about in his stomach. Razis noticed this and pushed him into a plastic chair next to a table. Neil clutched at his heart, his breath coming in fits and wheezes.

A break.

“Jaysus, look at this one,” said the man behind the table.

“Tell me about it,” said Razis. “I’m tired of dragging him around already.”

“Don’t let see Roux see him,” said the man with a grin, leaning towards Razis. The man’s teeth were perfectly straight, little condominiums lined up against the skyline of his graying gums.

“Let him,” said Razis. He plucked a speck of lint from the sleeve of his pinstriped suit jacket. “This isn’t his territory. I can do whatever the hell I please here.”

Neil put his head between his knees and took a few deep breaths. They shook, but they helped ease the tightness in his chest. He was in some place called ‘The Market.’ He had been on a midnight walk and found a severed hand on the sidewalk. Thinking was pointless; this was insanity. He felt a pat on his back and the voice of the man behind the table. The words floated towards him through the wobbling of his eardrums, sinking into his brain like raisins into oatmeal.

“You’ll be fine,” said the man, who added with a laugh, “We don’t do free-range.”

Neil felt a slap, this time, on the back of his head. It was not a hard slap, but it got his attention. “We haven’t got all day,” said Razis. Something prodded his arm, and kept prodding until he took it. It was a flask of some sort.

“Drink up,” said the man from behind the table.

Neil’s reasoning was shot. Normally the last thing he was supposed to do was to accept drinks from strangers, but he had also found a severed hand lying in the middle of the sidewalk less than ten minutes ago. He would cut himself a break from his typical incessant reality checks. He downed a few swigs of the flask, the contents of which turned out to be a pretty good whiskey. If it was drugged, at least it tasted fine, and Neil was messed up enough on nerves anyway. But he was starting to feel calmer.  A strange state of detachment flooded over him, like this was something happening on television to someone miles and miles away. Neil was the camera following him around, no consequences, just observation. So what did it matter? The man took the flask back and Neil finally stood up, a rush of strength bubbling to his head. For the first time he could look around with lucidity.  The colours and objects sharpened in his vision, and he could make out exactly how many tables were in the room, which was smaller upon closer inspection than his initial impression had led him to believe. Razis flashed his gash of a smile at Neil again, noticing the improvement. He held out his arm, but Neil declined the offer. Neil gave the straight-toothed man a grateful nod and the two continued down the row of tables.

Razis pointed to his left. “I’ll give you a little tour,” he said. “Over there is James. He has a whole line of young ladies at his door, and he uses his charm to its full potential.” Neil followed Razis’ finger to a tall, black-haired man with a broad jaw and dazzlingly blue eyes. James waved at Razis as he passed. Neil raised an awkward hand in an automatic half-wave, but James did not acknowledge him. Just as well. Neil didn’t want James to be able to recognize him.

“On your right,” said Razis, “is Jill. She provides much of her own stock, hence her prices.” A petite woman with a substantial bosom wiggled her fingers at them. She blew a kiss in their direction, which Neil took to be friendliness towards him, but Razis was the one who returned it. They walked further down the room, and there seemed to be no end to the tables. A few other people milled about in front of the tables as well as behind them, men in suits and women in furs. There were some people in jeans and other street clothes that were less formal, but their presence was greatly underrepresented in the cavernous meat market. This was clearly a place for those who could afford it. A – a meat market. That was it. Neil did not dare to ask Razis about the place lest he be reminded that there was a fresh young body walking alongside him, ripe for the picking by old farmer death and his sickle. But Neil did not have the time to speak. Razis halted, put his hand out in front of Neil, who skittered back to avoid running into it.

“Shh,” hissed Razis, standing very still. Neil followed his example, not sure if that would benefit him. Razis began to move slowly, trailing a gray-haired lady in a mink stole. He pushed Neil directly behind her and walked slightly ahead of her, pretending to investigate a table and engaging in some light conversation with the man behind the counter. The man had a broad wig of red air and an eye-patch, perhaps the wackiest character in this otherwise low-key madhouse. The man was wearing a plain white shirt and khaki pants, though, so the outrageousness only went so far. Neil wondered if the people who flitted around had to play it subtle for their own safety. After all, no one would want to advertise that they came here.

Neil stopped himself in his thoughts. He had no reason to be thinking about this right now when his life could still be in danger. Not that the rest of the evening until this point had been anything but dangerous. Of course Razis had said that Neil would not be harmed, but Neil had learned never to trust strangers in New York from every damn book and every damn film he had ever come across in his entire damn life. Wait a second. Then why did Neil trust Razis to stay still? Whom was Razis trying to avoid? Maybe it was the police. Oh God please yes. Neil moved with as much ninja-like grace as he could muster while almost pissing himself with fear and alcohol. He peered around the lady and her stole, seeking out Razis’ face among the other customers. Razis was still in conversation with the red-haired man, and he was not as worried as he had looked before. Perhaps the threat was gone, but when Razis caught Neil’s eye for a brief second, the slight mania returned to his eyes and he made a violent jerk with his head to tell Neil to stay behind the lady.

It finally struck Neil that he should actually be doing the opposite of Razis’ advice instead of only half-assedly following it. After all, the man had dragged him into this place from an evening walk on the street. And this was not a place in which Neil wanted to find himself on a Tuesday night. He had better, more legal things to be doing with is life, and he was not happy that Razis intercepted his evening and shoved him into the underworld, perhaps in more ways than just one. Neil pulled out of the lady’s vision block and walked to the center of the aisle, putting aside his fear in hopes that Razis’ cause for panic was a police officer. Damn it, he needed the police.

Razis noticed what Neil had gone, and was by his side within an instant, grasping onto his upper arm and pulling him towards the red-haired man. Neil tried to shake his arm free, but Razis, like his voice, was surprisingly strong. Whoever Razis had been trying to escape, it was too late.

“Evenin’ boys.” A drawl curled over Neil’s shoulder, and he spun around to face a tall, thin man, unhealthily pale with a smile twice the width of a normal man’s. His teeth were bared and yellow, poking at odd angles from his Cheshire cat grin. “I see you have a friend,” said the man, his voice a gravel driveway steamrollered with molasses.

Razis cut through the man’s words. “On the way to do a little business, if you don’t mind.” He gripped Neil’s arm even harder and began to slide away.

“Not so fast, cher,” said the man. “I’d like to know why you’re doing business on my turf.” That smile turned lopsided, but stayed lacquered to his face.

Razis glared at Neil, who now understood being pushed behind a woman with bulky fur. Neil wondered if he should cozy up to this tall man with the Cajun purr, or if he was safer with Razis. Ah. He noticed the tip of a knife in the man’s belt loop and made his decision.

“We’re just passing through,” said Razis, fake politeness ripping at his voice.

The man grunted, a magnificent flare to his nostrils. “Wits about you,” he said to Neil, whose blood burbled at the look from a pair of weirdly blue eyes. “Razis has gone a little bracque –”  he chuckled “ – in his old age.” He winked at Razis and took off down the aisle. Razis watched the man dissolve into the crowd and pointed his middle finger at Neil.

“This is why you do what I say,” he said.

“Why the hell should I trust you?” asked Neil, a valid question, he thought, but not one to which he expected a trustworthy reply.

“Roux would kill you in under a minute. Me, I could kill you in two if I felt like it.”

“But you don’t feel like it,” said Neil, with as much conviction as he could muster.

“I don’t, no,” said Razis. He began to walk through a couple of the tables to the side of the mammoth room, a wall that looked as if it had been carved from the side of a ship. Neil scuttled along beside him, surprised at how much more comfortable he had become. Oh, right. The booze. Razis stopped and turned to Neil. “I’ve done the show, Jim,” he said.  “Now for the tell.”

Neil looked at the older man, his broad nose and brown eyes shoved close together. Razis scratched his cheek lightly, taking a look around to make sure that they were alone. “That man was Roux,” he said. “A nasty son of a bitch who runs this place now. This territory was mine for years, but he threw a deal with his sponsors and he’s got it now. Royal asshole, rode his rich ass up here from New Orleans three years ago. Like anyone else, like me, he doesn’t like outsiders. But I had to bring you in to shut you up. My duty as part of the market. Maybe rearrange something.”

Neil’s heart shrunk to the size of a peach pit and fell into his stomach. His legs wobbled violently, and he struggled to stay upright.

Razis noticed his reaction, but waved his hand. “Probably not going to happen now.”  Seeing that Neil was not reassured, he added, “All right, it won’t happen now. And let me tell you why. You’re going to lend me a bit of help. Otherwise, say goodbye to a few fingers and more, sonny.” His eerie friendliness had disappeared, replaced by a sheet of ice sliding over his words. Now, glassy danger lurked behind his eyes. Alcohol aside, Neil knew that this man was not by nature a kind one.

Neil had a thousand questions he could ask, but he stuck with the simplest. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. Anything to get him out of here.

“You’re going to be my delivery boy,” said Razis.  “I want you to give a package to our man Roux. He won’t accept anything from me. He knows who I am, and he knows the people around here who like me better than him. You just go up to him, say I threatened you and you beg him for his mercy. He likes to play with his power. Vain old bastard will believe you, don’t worry. I’ve given him enough trouble in the past that he thinks his enemy’s enemy is his friend.”

Neil nodded, his mind crowded and confounded. He blurted the only coherent thought he had: “What’s in the package?”

Razis raised an eyebrow at him, as if to say ‘You don’t really want to know, do you?’ No. Neil didn’t. He wanted to get out of here, back to his home. He wanted the police, but there was no way to get to them now. He had to do what Razis asked him and that would get him home. He didn’t care that every character in the horror movies thought that way and never came out alive. He needed to believe he’d get home, just like any of those characters. Otherwise he didn’t stand an angel’s chance in hell. Razis, noting his silence, nodded in approval and drew a small box from his suit pocket. He shook it lightly, though it made no noise, and placed it in Neil’s hand. Razis smiled, the gash more of a slit this time.

“Take care, sonny Jim,” said Razis, and shoved him into the crowd.

*

Black bricks wobbled in front of him, which made Neil realize that his eyes were open. He blinked. The bricks were still. Slowly, he raised his hand in front of his face. Clear as it ever was. Neil moved his head from side to side, but a shock of pain cramped up his neck. He could see enough of his surroundings to know that he was in an alleyway, and the pale blue sky at the crack to the street was the blue of morning. Neil’s head ached like someone was throwing apples at the inside of his skull. He had no idea where he was or how he got there. But these were questions for later. Now was a time for getting the hell back to bed.

Shaking and with significant effort, Neil rose to his feet. He swayed, put a hand against the brick to steady himself. He made his way out of the alleyway and into the street. Brick buildings, cozy, nestled into each other like teenage girls taking a photograph. A few trees in the cement of the sidewalk. Plastic tricycle on a stoop. Some residential area. He squinted at a street sign.

Brooklyn. All right.

Clutching his head, Neil straggled down the street to find the nearest bus stop. Jesus, what a night. It must have been some night, and probably all the better that his blinding headache blocked him from thinking about it. Mm.  He thought he smelled bacon.

 

 

An Unsolicited Adventure


“Oh,” said Stephen. His jaw tensed. “This is …certainly interesting.”
“Eh?” grunted Mrs. Grindolin. She craned her neck over her shoulder, her eyes darting about the room like peevish wasps looking for something to sting.

“This,” said Stephen, pointing an unsteady hand at the kitchen table of Grindolin’s Inn. A dead body sprawled casually across the blocky wood, a man ready to nap for another five minutes or so – don’t bother me yet dear. He was packed into a sopping tweed suit, swollen hands lolling from its sleeves. He looked like a frog, splayed for dissection.

“Neh, that ‘un. Found ‘im in theWashthis morning,” said Mrs. Grindolin. She clucked her tongue, and Stephen nodded thoughtfully. He sometimes found shells by the sands of the Wash when his daily ramblings rendered him thereabouts. It was a pretty place. Too pretty to find something so grotesque. Wincing, he consulted the dead man’s face: It was pale wax and ghostly, already crossed over, hollowed out, an empty hermit’s shack up for rent. Beer brown eyes sunk wetly into slippery wooden cheeks – bloodless, drained, drowned.

“Hum,” hummed Stephen, because humming made him feel braver. “May I ask why he is on the kitchen table?”

“Dining room table had laundry on it.” Mrs. Grindolin frowned like she had something in her teeth. “Blasted Emma’s day off, you know.” She snorted scornfully, as if to say, Day off, my grandmother’s bloomers.

Stephen hummed again, once, before his throat became too dry. Stephen had come down only to fetch a morsel of last night’s lemon crumble, his latest experiment still steaming on his worktable, but his plans had been interrupted somewhat by this body business. He tapped an uncomfortable rhythm lightly on his thighs, tilted his heels. He was no good at dealing with the unexpected, especially when the unexpected was a dead body that reeked worse than fifty wet cats, yet smelled somehow familiar. “Well,” he said, to ground himself. Not humming.

“Well,” said Mrs. Grindolin.

“Well,” said Stephen.

“Well,” said the corpse, without moving its mouth.

“Pardon?”

“Well,” said the corpse. Its voice was rusted with cobwebs.

“Well.” Well indeed, thought Stephen, utterly taken aback. In all his experience, he had never known a corpse to speak.

“So he’s alive then, is he?” Stephen asked Mrs. Grindolin in a strained whisper. Mrs. Grindolin shoved a finger up her nose musingly and rummaged around a bit, looking for an answer. But she didn’t need one.

“Ay,” the corpse spoke for itself, still stationary.

Stephen’s shaky need for orientation got the better of him, knocking out anxiousness and making a run for the gold. “Not to be nitpicky, but aren’t you technically not a corpse if you’re not entirely… you know…dead?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” said the corpse as a nasty cough scratched its way through his frozen purple lips.

Stephen pondered this. He supposed it wouldn’t be too outlandish to claim that a living dead body was not necessarily a corpse, just as it would be sane to say that a breakfast which included more than four sausages continued to be breakfast and not instead a strange manner of lunch. The fact of the matter was the same, though the definition might not be.

He had heard his old Uncle William tell such wild tales of the unusual. Normally Stephen disregarded his eccentric uncle’s stories, but since one of them was currently lying across the kitchen table, he had no other choice but to believe what he was seeing.

“I say,” said Stephen, addressing the corpse without much confidence at all, “have you heard of a man called William?”

“I’ve heard of more Williams than I’d care to remember,” said the corpse.

Of course. Stephen cleared his throat, his face stuck as still as the corpse’s. “This particular William was called William Cavendish.” Then, to clarify, he added, “He was a wobbly old man who wore waistcoats that looked like wallpaper. He had a moustache a couple feet long, mismatched shoes, and was shaped like a walrus.”

“Ah, Cavendish the magician,” said the corpse, hacking grandly. “He’s the one who got me into this mess in the first place. I didn’t used to be dead before I knew Bill Cavendish.”

Stephen scowled, frustration banishing his fear for a moment. “I should have known that Uncle William had something to do with this.” So it was clear that now Uncle William was terrorizing them from beyond the grave… or beyond their little town of Fanford… or beyond wherever he was.

Stephen recalled Uncle William’s infamous pranks, getting people to choke on bread and slide off cliffs and such.  Stephen had survived a few such pranks, but not unscathed. He had a small scar on his left ankle where a rabid squirrel had become infuriated with him after he was flung into its tree by one of Uncle William’s ‘disease-curing-catapults.’

“What, may I ask, happened to you?”

“I was drowned in a vat of newt urine, I’m afraid, which I understand is a fairly common mistake for apprentices,” replied the corpse.

Newt urine. Now Stephen recognized why the corpse smelled so familiar. “Were you apprenticed to my Uncle William?”

“For all of three weeks, if you could call that an apprenticeship.”

Mrs. Grindolin, who had been uncharacteristically silent for all this time, concentrating on picking her nose, brought up the questions that Stephen had thus far been too shocked to ask.

“What d’yeh want from us, then?” she asserted, wiping her claw-like fingers on her filthy apron. “And who are you? I dragged you in here to get some use out of you, so if you can talk, I want to see some manners.”

“The name’s Gallahad Richard,” answered the corpse, “And I need some help.”

Suddenly, a new voice rumbled from the stairway.

“Gallahad,” it said, gruff. “Of course you’d end up here.”  Stephen turned to look at the source of the sound. As he had suspected, it was Ogden, the only other boarder at the Inn.

Ogden was a man perpetually clad in a black wool cloak, no matter what the weather or where he was. His facial features were thin and hard, and his skin was as pale as a spider’s egg sac. His muddy green-gray eyes were deeply set and shadowed in his brow, glaring out at the world with an expression that suggested that everyone else had better get sorted out. Ogden was built like a bear, but less cuddly and with slightly fewer teeth. And when he spoke, he sounded more like he was growling than trying to expel coherent words.

“I’m not surprised you turned out this way, plastered to the Grindolins’ table and begging for help.”

“I don’t want help from you,” said the corpse. His voice was colder than his hands.

Stephen padded over to lurk behind Mrs. Grindolin. Again he had plopped into the middle of a conflict when all he wanted was a snack.

“William pushed me into this pile of droppings, and William’s nephew will help me get out.” The plopping had turned into a shove.

“Stephen?” scoffed Ogden. “He couldn’t help himself to a themed buffet, let alone a cursed corpse. The last time he tried to ‘help’ someone he sparked the Great Outhouse Upheaval. We smelled that for weeks, and Emma is still unable to see colors.”

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if you hadn’t decided to interfere,” snapped Stephen. “It could have fixed itself, but no, you conjured that… horrible elf.” Stephen shuddered at the memory.

“That ‘horrible elf’ was the town doctor,” said Ogden. “I called him after you broke your own leg trying to crawl out the window.  Let a magician take care of this.”

Stephen’s face flushed. As much as Stephen wanted to be left alone, Gallahad had signed him up. He was not about to let Ogden sign him out, as usual. This was the straw that gave the proverbial camel a major sprain. With a flash of heat blistering across his cheeks, Stephen took courage from his indignation.

“No, Ogden,” he declared, stepping out from behind Mrs. Grindolin, who had returned to picking her nose. “Gallahad requested my help, not yours. It’s because of a magician that he’s a cursed corpse in the first place, and he’s not about to let magic make him worse. I’m a scientist, and I shall treat him with science. So be off with you.”

Ogden rolled his eyes darkly. “Let me know when you need my help.” With that, he pulled his cloak close and clomped up the stairs.

Stephen stood still, watching Ogden’s cloak as it swished around the corner and knowing he’d made a mistake. Ogden may have been unfriendly, but at least he was competent. What did Stephen know about curses? What did Stephen know about anything? He turned his chagrined attention to Mrs. Grindolin and Gallahad.

“Er…Gallahad, about what I just said…”

“You’ll help me.” It was less a hopeful request than a command.

“I…er… well… all right.” You didn’t want to argue with a cursed corpse – at least, not right away. Stephen wouldn’t argue until he knew what the curse did, and whether it could kill him. “So…what kind of curse is this?”

“I’m trapped in a corpse,” said the corpse. “I have no control over this body, which is dead, by the way, and I am stuck inside. I want you to help me get out.”

Simple enough, thought Stephen, except how to fix it.

 

***

 

The copper wires crackled with light as Stephen tripped gracefully over them and landed crooked-limbed in a pile of burlap sacks.

“Yes, those are very nice,” said Gallahad, impatience tugging at a thread of his voice. He was propped upon the kitchen table against a heavy rack of knives and a burly ceramic kitten that smiled beatifically. “Are you quite finished?”

“Almost,” called Stephen, but his word was muffled by the sack into which his face seemed to be stuck. “Oh my, it smells foul in here.” As Stephen disentangled his nose from the sack’s drawstrings, he rather hoped Gallahad wasn’t beginning to have doubts about his procedure.

Mrs. Grindolin stumbled into the kitchen, a basket full of what appeared to be damp rags trying to make a leap out of her arms. “Got ‘em.” She dropped the basket on the floor, and some of the rags flopped out, revealing themselves to be raccoons.

Dead raccoons.

“My dear Mrs. Grindolin,” said Stephen, having finally managed to extract his face from the sack pile. “I asked for onions.”

“Ey, I checked the cellar,” said Mrs. Grindolin, sullenly shoving her hands deep in her pockets. “We only ‘ad the raccoons.”
“You had dead raccoons but no onions?” asked Gallahad.

Stephen turned sympathetically towards the corpse. “You’ll find it happens a lot around here.” He got up, plucked a dead raccoon from the floor, and prodded it gently. “Well, I suppose this will have to do.”

“If you get this wrong,” said Gallahad, his words suddenly low and stony, his manner dialed down to bottom volume. “You’ll find that I will have no other choice than to burn you alive.”

Stephen froze. Something broke in his brain; his thoughts flashed blindly.

“I- …Th-…that was not part of the bargain.”

Without warning, the volume dial swung back up to a messy crescendo. “Pardon?” asked Gallahad. Then, gauging Stephen’s petrified silence, amended, “Ah, I must have threatened you. Never you mind that.” But then the corpse broke off.  His vacant eyes offered no clues.

Stephen returned the raccoon he was holding to Mrs. Grindolin’s basket, his spine stiff. His hands had started to shake. “So…let’s… let’s make this work then.”

Mrs. Grindolin, unfazed by the past few moments of conversation, began to string the raccoons along the copper wires. Stephen laced the wires through the eyelets of Gallahad’s forlorn, mud-caked boots.

“The idea,” Stephen explained hesitantly, “Is that we fire a large shock into one end of the wires. The power travels along the wires, augmented by the oni- ah, raccoons, and then bounces off your feet, ricochets off the window you’re facing, and shoots straight into your heart, thus dislodging your soul.”

Stephen had to admit that for a scientific progress, it was a little lackluster. He had only drawn up three pages of blueprints for this one; had only spent half an hour crammed into an unused cattle stall, which was his Thinking Space. But Stephen knew how to invent. He could shave a sheep using naught but a bottle of Emma’s headache tonic; he could repair the massive holes he regularly blew in the barn walls with a simple wave of a tarp and his own concoction of rubber and manure.

He would give this one a sound thrashing about with reason and hope it worked.

“Do what you do, Stephen,” said Gallahad.

Stephen sucked a deep breath through this teeth, surveyed the room to make sure everything was in place. It was. Mrs. Grindolin stroked a spare raccoon as Stephen picked his way over the wires to a shabby wooden crate close to the doorway. A bright orange switch poked out of the crate like a bedraggled flower, and Stephen flicked it with all his might.

Nothing happened for a moment, and then the room exploded with a fizzling crinkle and sizzled crack. Lights spun like fairies through the room, flying along the copper wires, beating against them in infinite rapid vibrations, singeing every raccoon as they whizzed past. Power whistled through the air as the charge plunged into the soles the corpse’s boots; it cartwheeled off of them, a radiant roman candle that exploded into the window then flashed back like a bullet.

It rocketed into Gallahad’s chest, and the blast of the collision bathed the entire room in a burst of brilliance. Stephen stood open-mouthed at the doorway, fists scarred and white. Mrs. Grindolin squeezed the raccoon, her wrinkled eyelids parted wide. An electric glow, webbed like lightning, flickered across their faces.

The blaze finally faded, and a man emerged from behind the dissipating flare. He was an otter-like little man with a weedy moustache, squinting into the friendly yellow warmth of the kitchen. Gallahad. His former corpse sagged leisurely against its ceramic props, completely empty now, as flatly bereft as a bottle by the Wash.

The otter-like man blinked.

Stephen blinked.

Mrs. Grindolin’s dead raccoon blinked – which everyone ignored.

“Well,” said Stephen.

“Well,” said Gallahad.

“Well,” said Stephen. “Who’s up for lemon crumble?”

 

***

Ogden slumped against the kitchen door with a mighty sigh. That one had taken some legwork. Of course, you didn’t just save two lives like that without a little effort. Ogden closed his eyes, dabbed at his brow with a coarse handkerchief.

Dead raccoons, Stephen? Really?

That man never learned.

Afterwards

At first, there was nothing but gold. It was a sad gold, weak and dying.  And Danny could see nothing but gold. He could feel nothing but stone beneath his back. His head pounded. He had no idea where he was; there was only the gold.

But then out of the gold, as if someone had turned a radio dial, a voice began to speak. The voice was hazy, garbled, wobbling in volume, but it was a voice. It sounded normal enough, with a ringing halo to it and a pronounced echo.

“Who’s this?” it asked. It was gentle, quiet.

Another voice, a rough voice, crassly pushed the first out of the way. “Look at your notes, idiot.” There was the sound of paper fluttering like pigeon wings.

“Now, now,” said the soft voice. “There’s no need for names.” The second voice grunted. Casual flipping sound, graze and flap of a page being turned. “All right. His name is Danny March.” Danny blinked his sightless eyes: they were talking about him.

A horrid rasping sound – a gasp – erupted from the second voice. “Mine. Danny March, he’s mine.”

Danny’s stomach lurched at the sound of the broken glass voice caressing his name. He peered into the gold, and much to his surprise, he could suddenly make out a blurry portrait of his own body, a rippling mirror image as if he were looking at himself across the room. Could that even happen? His head bled the ache of confusion.

A third voice, from somewhere else, cleared its throat.

“Listen to the Notes first, please.” This voice was dry, neutral; the voice of a bargainer.

“Thank you,” said the first voice. Another flick of paper, and it carried on serenely. “Danny March. He was 25 years old, lived in-”

The second voice could not resist breaking in once more. “I know what he did, Feather-butt. I know what he did, and he’s mine.”

“You must listen to all the notes first, Azrael,” said the third voice. “But, yes, March was a murderer. He killed two women.” Danny’s mind flashed white with anger. You don’t know what they did, he hissed through muted lips.

The first voice – the voice of ‘Feather-butt’ – inhaled softly, then exhaled in a gentle sigh; the rattling of a bell, its tingling song gone hoarse. And suddenly, Danny felt something strange, a tugging at the numbness of his heart. Somehow, the simple sigh unwove the knot of anger that had frozen his chest, and it did something that the broken sobs of the women had not. Perhaps because it was beautiful, unlike their ugly whining and running makeup. It was pure. It was troubled – not troubling – and it poured something into him, something like warm tea. It bubbled slightly; flowed, trickled, and Danny could finally see.

He darted a glance at the body he was in: his white palms, trembling. The same veiny hands that limped at the end of his arms. The same sleeves, the same awkward elbows. The same knobby knees jabbing out of his skinny legs. He struggled into a sitting position, wincing at the pain that lanced out of every joint and muscle.

He squinted around, taking a moment to adjust. He was in a room with a high ceiling that arched into a shadowy line; it was the size of a decent boardroom in a decent office. The room was cold with stone.

The people working in this room were a different matter altogether. They were all men, or manly enough. One of them wore a light gray business suit, immaculate, with a pale blue tie. His demeanor seemed altogether slight, unobjectionable. He sat in a throne-like chair, gold-framed and upholstered in periwinkle, straight-backed and calm. A sheaf of notepaper sat on his knees, and as Danny watched him, he tapped at it idly with a finger. A white dusted mountain of feathers protruded from his shoulder blades: they were wings. Feather-butt.

The second voice must have belonged to the darker man on the opposite side of the room. Azrael. He sat in chair identical to the light man’s, but one with black wood and a cushion the color of dripping blood. His body was sloping, brooding, slim and peaky. He wore a leather jacket, and his pupil-less eyes flashed obsidian. A manic grin played at one corner of his mouth, whispering close and then flicking away again. He was almost handsome, in a broad-mouthed, clashy way. All of his notepaper was on the floor next to his chair, rumpled and abandoned.

And there was a third man in the room, at the far side, whom both the other men were facing. He must have been the man with the dry voice, for there was no one else in the room. He was tall, tall, and very tall; a wiry giant. His face was gray and rubbery and speckled black, as if with soot. A pair of spectacles nested at the end of his long nose. He stood at a wooden podium, upon which rested a gavel and a messy stack of yellowed paper.

Danny’s body was at the same side of the room as the tall man, hovering politely, as if waiting for a bus, patient and humming with a dirty, navy light. Danny himself was at the opposite end of the room, watching everything with a hazy understanding.

This is the world you see when you wake up first thing in the morning after three hours of sleep. This is the world where nothing makes sense, and yet you take it as it comes, because there’s no way to escape.

The tall man picked up his reading from the topmost of the paper stack. His voice was droning, but clear; separating words like wheat from the chaff.

“He worked as a waiter at a French restaurant in Buffalo.  He lived a quiet life, no family, no friends.” He adjusted his spectacles with a skeletal hand.  “Very much a misogynist: hated all of them. Their children, too, but he kept that to himself.” The tall man turned a couple of pages. “Most of this is hate.”

Danny could see Azrael smiling to himself as if trying to contain a chuckle. Smugness, because he was right. Across the room, the man in gray rested his head on his fist, betrayed.

“I’m afraid the choice is made, Sariel,” said the tall man.

The man in gray sighed. “You know I hate losing them.”

“Never had this one in the first place,” Azrael barked with a laugh.  “Hell.”

Yes, this world was shaken out of dreams: nothing made sense, but there was no escape from the tangled sheets. Treacherous linen. Danny could only watch.

“Let’s weigh him first,” pleaded the light man, Sariel. “There might be something in his heart that isn’t on the notes. There sometimes is. Remember Gary Whitwell?”

“Oh, dear Beelzebub and his entire army of the damned,” moaned Azrael. “Not another Gary Whitwell.”

The tall man shifted on his feet uncomfortably. “I agree.”

Sariel blushed. “All right, not another Gary Whitwell.” He pushed himself up from his blue cushion and began to walk toward Danny. Could they see him? Danny’s eyes were strapped frozen in their sockets.

Every step closer that Sariel took, Danny felt his pulse take a leap faster. Step, beat, step, beat, step beat step beat stepbeat stepbeatstepbeat– until Sariel passed him, a whiff of soap scent puffing genteelly in Danny’s face. So he was invisible. At least, he was invisible to them. He turned, his eyes glued to Sariel’s feathery back. Sariel finally reached the back wall, where there stood a metal filing cabinet. Three drawers lounged in it, mute and bored. The filing cabinet looked forlorn, but it perked up as Sariel reached out to it. A thick layer of dust blew from its top as Sariel’s arm came closer. It was ready for business.

As Sariel pulled, the topmost drawer eased out with a feisty squeal, reprimanding him for leaving it alone for such a long time. A frown creased at Sariel’s brow, and the noise suddenly stopped. The drawer finished pulling out silently, humbled by the bright blue eyes that wept disappointment without even blinking. Sariel dug his arm in the drawer and rummaged around, most of his limb disappearing into the gray metal shelf. There was no way the drawer could be that deep. Sariel pushed in further and further, until his gaze cleared and he found what he was looking for. Then he began to pull. Bit by bit, Sariel’s arm emerged, and with it came a long black bar. It was made of thin iron, by the sheen of it. A damp light glided across the bar as Sariel pulled it out and set it with a mighty clank and clatter to the stone floor.

Sariel’s arm began a second expedition into the cabinet, stretching further than it had before and finally pulling out a long rod that melted into a thick base. This too went onto the floor, and Sariel made a third plunge into the unknown. Victory came in the form of two small gold dishes, leaking tails of thin chains. These he looped over the ends of the metal bar, and he hooked the metal bar to the top of the rod.

“And voilà!” said Sariel. “The Scales.” He and Danny looked back to Azrael and the tall man, who were both unimpressed. “Oh, come on. There’s always hope, isn’t there?”

“I know I have him,” said Azrael, scratching his chin. “Why would I want to give him to you, or even Purgatory?”

“Because it would be fair,” replied Sariel.

“We do need to be fair,” said the tall man with the breath of a sigh.

Sariel beamed, a few stars caught in his blindingly white teeth. Azrael grunted, but hefted himself to the side of the room where Sariel was.

It finally occurred to Danny to get up. He was not so much scared now as curious. If this was a dream, after all, what harm did he have to fear? He would just wake up… eventually. In the meantime, he needed to weave through this world, investigate it while it was still around.                  He pushed into a standing position and went to join the three clustered around the scales. As he reached them, the tall man put his hand to the scales, lightly stroking across the bar, which wobbled. As Danny watched, the bar began to turn gold, a stream stemming from the tall man’s spiny fingers, cascading to the tips, dripping down the already gold chains and dishes, and down the stem, pooling like a molten crown at the base. That must be a great power to have, thought Danny. Lot of fun at parties.

Azrael and Sariel watched the transformation, Azrael with a bored sneer, smelling something disagreeable in the air surrounding the whole procedure, and Sariel with an excited, nervous smile. Danny might even feel guilty to destroy that smile. Whatever the scales were, if this all involved him, it was probably not going to turn out well for Sariel.

The tall man now removed his hand from the scale and looked at Azrael and Sariel. “Well, we need the soul.” The other two made no motion to do anything, though Azrael’s sneer darkened as if brushed by vinegar.

“Right.” The tall man held his hand up, palm facing outwards, towards the side of the room where Danny’s body was lurking. The body began to move. Grotesque, twitching, an ugly puppet, it began to walk. The body made its way over to the scales, flopping like a rubber glove. The tall man halted it when it arrived, and he plunged his hand through the body’s jacket, through the flannel shirt, through the skin, the flesh, the bone, the cartilage, muscle, tendons, arteries, and came back out with a sphere of light. It was bruised and dark blue, almost black, but a punching of brown was sunk deep into it. It was dusty. Danny almost smiled. Oh, the disrepair.

The tall man swiveled back to Sariel and Azrael. “All right. Now who has the feather?” Both stood still for a moment, and then Sariel’s forehead crumpled into thought.

“What?” Azrael asked. “You didn’t lose it, did you?”

Sariel glared at him. “No, I did not,” he said coldly. “I’m just trying to remember where exactly…” As he spoke, he snaked his hand into one of his jacket pockets and removed a ruffled, ugly, abused feather. It had clearly used to be white, but maybe those gay dreams and happy memories had flown away with the bird to which it must have once been attached. Sariel gave the feather to the tall man, who accepted it delicately between a thumb and forefinger.

The tall man placed Danny’s sphere in one of the scale’s trays, and the feather in the other. The trays trembled, and then began to shift. The one bearing the sphere slowly dragged downwards, and then the feather snatched the weight from it, and then the sphere took it back… Like a game of football or soccer, watching the weight shift hands between a burly quarterback and a weedy Brazilian who could handle a ball. Until the quarterback triumphed, and it went down, down, down to the scale’s base; the feather was helpless atop its shallow dish, its last struggles leaking away.

The game was over. Danny’s sphere won. And Sariel’s bubble burst.

Azrael just nodded. “What did I say, Feather-butt?” And then, with uncharacteristic almost-gentleness: “There are some cases you can’t help.” Sariel nodded mutely, eyes on the darkened sphere. Danny felt something give way in his underused heart. It was something infinitesimally small, but a trick of sympathy. Or something. Sariel’s shoulders slumped, and he made his lonely way back to his chair to sulk. Azrael shrugged off his brief camaraderie and returned to his own chair.

The tall man snapped his deadened fingers and the scales sprang apart, hurtling back into the filing cabinet, as the drawer opened to admit the pieces. A clatter echoed down the infinite space, and the filing cabinet snapped shut with a contented bang. The sphere and feather hovered just above the cabinet. The tall man plucked them from the air, eased the feather into his pocket, and shoved the sphere with the merest stroke of disgust back into Danny’s body’s chest.

It was done.

So a sad little feather had dictated his eternal fate. This finality… this noise… this was no dream. Danny was going to Hell, if his logic and Sunday school had taught him anything. Stories about Noah, and Abraham, and Jesus; the dynamic duos, Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve; Jacob’s ladder leading to Heaven, and then there was that Other Place they had all been too nervous to even whisper – Hell. Danny just shivered; it was too late to be scared.

“So what do I do with March? I want to talk to him,” complained Azrael.

“You’ll just need to wait,” said the tall man patiently. “Send him to the Waiting Room for the time being, and collect him after.”

“Fine,” said Azrael. “Fine.” He grasped the shoulder of Danny’s body, rolled his eyes, and muttered something in a guttural, blurry tongue. Immediately, the body began to waver, flickering like a trashy motel’s television reception, and Danny felt himself undulating, too. The sensation was dizzying, bipolar black-and-white zapping rays of color off the air, out of his vision. A flash of Sariel in his blue tie and bubble of innocence, Azrael’s smoky leather, and the tall man’s gavel, pedestal, fled into the distance.

Eternal damnation, thought Danny with a hushed crying of lament, trying it on for size. Here I come, Mother.