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Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Clockwork Mouse

A dark short story about a very angry ten-year-old boy and an antique wind-up mouse.

A Clockwork Mouse

            Jacob Clay was already in a black mood when he got sent to his room by his grandmother early one Saturday morning.
            It had been raining for four days straight.  Under other circumstances, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  Had it been summer, rain was just an invitation to run around in the back yard wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, pretending to be stranded on a jungle island, fighting off wild animals, dragons, or cannibals, or possibly all three.  But the windy chill of October had settled in, and getting soaking wet when it was forty degrees outside wasn’t appealing.  Inside, there was only so much time you could spend reading and playing with toys, many of which had outlasted his interest in them.  So he had amused himself for a while messing with his grandmother’s stuff.
            This was always dangerous ground.  Grandma Connie was a stern woman with slim patience for children.  She could tell a mean ghost story, when she was in the mood, but she was not someone who simply enjoyed kids being kids.  So when she found Jacob in the living room, playing Jungle Adventure with her collectable porcelain animal statues, and discovered that he had already chipped the unicorn’s horn, she promptly sent him to his room with an adjuration to “Stay there until you learn how to respect others’ property.”
            Jacob stomped up the stairs, his face set in a twist of irritation, and plunked himself down on his bed and looked around.  There was even less to do here; if he was at loose ends in the whole house, what did Grandma Connie expect him to do when he was confined in his room?
            He tried, for about five minutes, to look through one of his books on dinosaurs.  Then he dropped that on the floor, and pulled out a box with a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a puppy on the front.  He knew that that one had a piece missing – one of the puppy’s ears – and he shoved the box under his bed with his foot.  Then he sighed, listening to the rain slashing against the window.
            After a moment, he stood up, went to his door, and opened it, and listened carefully.  Grandma Connie was down in the kitchen, it sounded like – probably baking.  Whatever else you could say about Grandma Connie, her cookies, pies, and cakes were first-class.  He heard the clink of measuring cups, and then a drawer opened, and then closed.
            Jacob eyed the stairs at the end of the hall.  One set led down, back into the living room, where he was certain to get caught if he was heard.
            The other set led up to the attic.
            It had been a while since he’d been in the attic.  It wasn’t off-limits, not explicitly, but the one time he’d gone up there alone, his grandmother had said, “What were you doing up there?  Cobwebs and old books and spiders and god-alone-knows-what up there.  Nothing to interest a ten-year-old boy.”
            She was sorely misjudging what would be of interest to a ten-year-old boy, of course; just the fact that it was mysterious, dimly lit, and smelled like dust and antiquity made it attractive.  So did the fact that Grandma Connie obviously didn’t want him to go up there.  What, exactly, was she hiding?
            Jacob peered down the hallway.  There was no reason he’d get caught, if he was careful.  He knew from experience that once he was banished to his room, he was effectively forgotten, at least until lunchtime or dinnertime came.  He tiptoed down the hall, and then looked up the stairs to the landing.
            The stairs were wooden, and creaked, and he hadn’t been up them enough to know which ones were the noisiest.  But at that moment, Grandma Connie turned on a blender in the kitchen, and Jacob seized the moment and sprinted up the stairs to the landing, then turned and went up the last set to the closed attic door.
            He reached out and turned the doorknob handle, and pulled the door open at the same moment that the noise of the blender ceased.  The door hinges made an alarming groaning noise, and he froze, listening for the noise of footsteps.  When, after a moment, there was no sound of pursuit, he walked into the attic.
            The floorboards squeaked softly under his light tread, as he walked around looking at the bookshelves.  There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of books up here; a twenty-volume set called History of the World, a set of gardening encyclopedias that looked like they might be antiques, some books written in French and Spanish and Dutch and Swedish.  Jacob had heard Grandma Connie talking about her husband, Jacob’s grandfather, whom he had never met – Grandpa Charles had been a language professor, “fluent in everything,” his mother had once told him, but had died of a heart attack twelve years ago in his classroom.  Jacob wished he’d known him.  He sounded interesting.
            Further along were rows and stacks of boxes.  Some of them sounded boring – “Linens.”  “Christmas Decorations.”  “China.”  But then he happened upon one that said, “Toys – Jamie.”
            Jamie?  Who was Jamie?  The box was taped shut with strapping tape that was peeling and yellow with age, and the adhesive was mostly crumbly, and bits of it clung to the fingertips like damp flour.  He moved some other boxes aside, and pulled it out into the center of the floor, and then pulled the remains of the tape away and opened the flap.
            The items inside were old; Jacob knew that immediately.  There were stuffed animals, but not the shiny plush of the ones he’d only recently outgrown.  These were made of cloth, with button eyes and noses of felt, and when he picked one up, it was heavy and a little stiff, like it was stuffed with sawdust.  There was a game called “Bagatelle,” which had steel balls in a glass-topped wooden maze – the aim, it seemed, was to move the balls around and drop them down holes.  There was a Lionel metal train that looked like it had seen hard service – its paint was chipped and worn, and the one of the cars was missing the hook to connect it to the next one.  Jacob set all of these aside.
            In the bottom of the box was a mouse.  At first, Jacob thought it was a real mouse, and he felt a little flutter of fear, but very quickly he realized his mistake.  The mouse wasn’t very lifelike.  It was small, and white, but made of smooth metal, with painted-on eyes and whiskers.  It had wheels instead of feet, and a hole in its back for a key.  It, too, was well-worn.  There were some dings in the enamel, and one of the wheels was a little crooked.
            He picked it up, and all of a sudden, all of the angry feelings that had been building in the last weeks coalesced into one furious, needle-sharp thought; here he was, stuck with his grandmother because his parents Needed Time To Talk About Their Relationship, and anyway they had to work during the day, and Grandma Connie didn’t even want him around, and now he was stuck with rummaging around in some old junk in the attic to entertain himself.
            Bitterly, he tipped the box, and heard a low thunk.  He looked in, and saw what it was; the clockwork mouse’s key.  He took it out, fit the key into the hole, and wound it up, then set the mouse on the floor.  It began to scoot around in circles, making rhythmic squeaking noises that actually did sound fairly mouse-like.  Something about the way it moved made all the frustrated rage in him bubble to the surface – the mouse seemed to be carving a circular hole in the wood plank floor, a hole in which to pour all of his anger.  He felt its creaky little voice say, a voice only he could hear, Give me your fury, and I will make something of it.
            “I hate this,” Jacob said, watching the mouse scurrying in its pointless loops.  “I hate everyone.  I hate them all, and I especially hate Grandma Connie.  I wish she’d fall down and break her leg.”
            There was a sudden shout and a crash from downstairs, and Jacob looked up, his heart thudding in his chest, as the mouse wound down and stopped moving.

            Jacob’s mom came home from work just as the paramedics were lifting Grandma Connie into the back of the ambulance.  One of the paramedics asked Jacob’s mom if they wanted to ride in the back of the ambulance to the hospital, which sounded to Jacob like it would be fun; but Grandma Connie said, her voice thin with pain, “No, Eva, can you just clean up the kitchen?  I don’t want…”  She glanced at Jacob, and Jacob knew she meant, “I don’t want him bothering me when I have a broken leg.”  Then Grandma Connie looked at Jacob’s mom and said, “You can come down later.”
            So Jacob’s mom brought him back inside, and gave him a big hug through her tears and told him what a brave, smart boy he was, that he remembered how to call 911 and kept his head and took care of Grandma Connie.  Then she looked around her at the kitchen, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and said, “Well.  We better get this cleaned up, and then we’ll go down to the hospital and see how Grandma is doing.”
            The little step-stool that Grandma Connie used to reach high shelves lay on its side, and a glass mixing bowl was in sharp, multicolored fragments all over the linoleum.  Another bowl, with eggs and milk and cream and molasses, sat forlornly on the counter.  Jacob’s mom got a broom, and told Jacob to go put on shoes so his feet wouldn’t get cut.  Then they cleaned up the kitchen.  Jacob had a momentary hope that his mom would finish making whatever it was that Grandma Connie had been working on, but she upturned the mixing bowl with the eggs and everything over the sink, and ran some water into it, and then said, “I need to call your aunt and uncle and let them know what happened.”
            Jacob went back upstairs, and heard just the beginning of the conversation, “Hi, Susan?  It’s Eva.  I’m calling to let you know there’s been an accident.  Mom fell in her kitchen… yes, she’s going to be fine, but she broke her leg.  She’s been taken to St. Stephen’s.  We’ll be going down soon…  Jacob was home, he called 911… yes, he is…”
            The voices faded as he walked back up to the attic.  The door was still standing open; he saw his footprints on the dusty floor, the barefoot impression of toes, sole, heel, leading along the bookshelves and then to the box of toys, which still lay scattered on the floor.  He looked down at the clockwork mouse, still now, its painted eyes staring up at him.
            He looked at it for a long time, without moving.  The key still protruded from its back, and he could just see beneath it the misaligned wheels that had sent it in wild circles earlier.  He reached down, and picked it up, held it in his hand.
            “What else can you do?” he asked it solemnly.
            It didn’t answer.
            “Jacob!” he heard his mom’s voice calling from downstairs.  “Let’s go.  We need to go to the hospital, and see how Grandma is doing.”
            “Coming!” he shouted, but never took his eyes off the mouse.
            Then he thought of the way the weekend was being eaten up – his grandmother ruining the morning by sending him to his room, and now he was going to have to spend the afternoon at the hospital.  He’d been to the hospital before, when his Great-Aunt Judith had been dying of liver cancer, and mostly what he remembered was the smell of antiseptic and the color white and the boredom, great crashing hours of boredom, sitting still and waiting for it all to be over so he could go home.  And now, his precious weekend was being taken again, and looming on the horizon of Monday morning was the bulky frame of Mrs. Marshall, his fourth grade teacher, whom he and his classmates couldn’t stand.  Mrs. Marshall seemed to leer at him, waiting, waiting for him to leave the attic so she could confine him to his seat and make him multiply and add and read stupid stories about the Pilgrims and write down answers on worksheets.
            “Jacob!” his mother called again.
            Jacob quickly wound up the mouse, and said, “I hope Mrs. Marshall gets really sick.”  Then he set down the mouse on the floor, and let it run its squeaky circles by itself.  He ran downstairs to his bedroom, and was just putting on his jacket when his mother came up to see what was keeping him.

            Mrs. Marshall did not show up to school Monday.  The sub, Miss McLaughlin, let them have free read for as long as they wanted to, brought her guitar and sang songs with them, and art class ran a half-hour over into math before she realized what had happened.
            When Mrs. Marshall still hadn’t returned by Thursday, the principal, Mrs. Stefanovic, came into the class with a grave expression and said that Mrs. Marshall was in the hospital with pneumonia, and probably wouldn’t be back for a while, but not to worry because she was already improving.  The children, Mrs. Stefanovic said, could help her get better by spending art class designing a big card to send to Mrs. Marshall in the hospital.  Miss McLaughlin said they’d be happy to.
            Jacob walked home that day, thinking about how he would destroy the clockwork mouse when he got home.
            I can bury it in the back yard, he thought.  It’ll rust and the wheels will stick and even if someone finds it, it won’t run.  Then he thought about taking a hammer to it, watching the frame dent, the eyes skew, as the springs and gear wheels that drove its axles came flying out.  It’ll never run again, he thought.  It’ll never hurt anyone again.
            Then, another thought came to him:  What if the mouse won’t let you destroy it?  What if it tries to kill you?
             But this was such an awful idea that he started to repeat to himself the mantra he always used when he’d been scared at night when he was little – not real, not real, none of that scary stuff is real.  And by the time he got home, he had convinced himself.  None of it was real.  He hadn’t caused Grandma Connie’s accident; he hadn’t caused Mrs. Marshall’s pneumonia. There was no need to break the mouse, any more than destroying his book Ten Terrifying Ghost Stories would have made any difference to what he dreamed at night, alone in the dark.

            Grandma Connie came home from the hospital three days after her fall; she’d had surgery to pin her leg bone where it was broken, and Jacob’s mom had said, “Falls at that age are never easy to heal from.”  Grandma Connie was sterner and crankier than ever, and Jacob seemed to spend most of the time he wasn’t at school getting her tea, glasses of water, toast with butter, and turning the television off or on, turning the volume up or down.  When Jacob’s mom came over to have dinner with them, which she did every three evenings or so, she never stayed long.
            Jacob didn’t mention about Mrs. Marshall being sick. 
            Friday night, Jacob’s mom came for dinner, and after cleaning up the dinner dishes and helping Grandma Connie to her recliner, she took Jacob aside.
            “Jacob, honey,” she began, and then stopped.
            Jacob tensed.  His mother never called him “honey” unless it was bad news; she’d called him that when his other grandmother, Grandma Abigail, had died; she’d called him that when she’d told him he was going to live with his grandmother while she and Jacob’s dad Worked On Their Relationship.
            “What, mom?” Jacob said, his voice shaking a little.
            “Your dad and I… we’ve decided it’s for the best for everyone if, well, if we live apart.  Your dad… he’s been seeing someone.  Her name is Cecile, and he’s going away to live with her.  He’s moving to Baltimore.”
            “He just left me?” Jacob said, his voice coming out a squeak, like the wheels of the clockwork mouse.  “Will I… will I get to see him?”
            “Yes, of course.  When he’s moved in and settled.  He left this morning, and we’ll… you’ll… go and visit him soon.”  She tried to smile, and failed.  “But it means that you will come back to live with me again.  I know you’ll miss your Grandma Connie, but…”
            Jacob jumped up, ran out of the room, ignored his mother’s cry of, “Jacob, honey, wait…”, ignored his grandmother’s annoyed exclamation as he ran through the living room, passed the cabinet with the porcelain animal statues, and up the stairs.  He didn’t pause by his bedroom door, but continued up to the attic, slamming the door behind him, pulling the chain that turned on the single light bulb hanging by a cord from the ceiling, setting it swinging, making crazy rocking shadows move across the walls and floor.
            The clockwork mouse was still where it had run down from the last time; no one had been up here since.  Breathing hard, his face pinched with anger, Jacob grabbed the mouse, and wound it up.  He hadn’t even set it down before he snarled, “I hope my dad gets in a car crash on his way to Baltimore and has to stay in the hospital for five years.”
            The mouse’s wheels had only begun squeaking before Jacob’s mom appeared in the attic door, and she said, gently, “Jacob, honey, come downstairs.  We need to talk.  It’s going to be okay.”
            Jacob stood, hearing the clockwork mouse skittering over the floorboards behind him, and went to her, thinking bleakly, She’s lying to me, and she knows she’s lying.  It will never be okay.

            When the call came the next morning, Jacob wasn’t really surprised.
            He was up in his room, still in his pajamas, playing with his old GameBoy.  He tensed when the phone rang, and listened – and he heard his mom say, “Oh, god, oh, no,” and start crying.
            Her appearance at his door ten minutes later, with a tremulous, “Jacob, honey, there’s been an accident,” was met with a blank stare.  He already knew what she was going to say.

            After that, it took hours before he had time to escape, unnoticed, to the attic.  Family and friends came over, everyone wanted to talk to him and comfort him and reassure him.  Even Grandma Connie tried to be nice to him, offering to read him a story.  But eventually he was able to get away, and he padded barefoot up to the attic, crossed the floor to where the toy box was.
            The clockwork mouse still sat there, its emotionless eyes looking up at him.
            “You did all this,” he said to the mouse.
            The mouse said nothing, just kept staring at him.
            He picked up the key, and wound it three times, feeling the springs tense as they coiled inside the metal body.  Jacob looked at the mouse, and said, “I wish everything bad that has happened would be gone.  Grandma Connie’s broken leg, Mrs. Marshall’s pneumonia, and my dad… being in a coma.”  His voice broke a little on the last one, but he was able to finish the sentence, and he set the mouse down, and listened to its little squeaks as the mechanism inside it propelled it around on the floor.
            He watched it until it stopped moving, and he stood completely still for a while.  Surely, soon there would be some kind of shout from Grandma Connie that her leg was miraculously healed, the phone ringing that his father was awake and was going to be okay?
            Nothing happened.
            It didn’t work, he thought, alarm rising in him.  It didn’t work.  Maybe it can only do bad things.
            “You did all this,” he said again, anger rising in his voice.  He picked the mouse up, held it close to his face, and a thought came, seeming to come from outside him:  No.  You did.  You did all this.  Your anger.  Your rage.  You.  Not me.  And once done, things cannot be undone.  You chose, and that is all.
            “No,” Jacob said.  “It was you.  Why?  Why did you do it?”
            He looked into the mouse’s eyes, searching for some sign of life, some sign of recognition that he existed; but its expression was as lifeless as ever.
            I am only guilty as a knife used to slay a man is guilty.  I was only the tool that you used.
            “Who was Jamie?  Did he turn you evil?”
            I do not remember him.  If I was simply a child’s toy once, that is done now.
            “I’ll destroy you,” he whispered to it.
            It won’t change anything.  You will still have done what you have done, even if the tool you used is broken.
            Jacob fell to his knees.  A pair of tears slid down his cheeks, unnoticed.  He said to the mouse, “What can I do?”
            Nothing.  It is too late.
            Jacob inserted the key into the mouse’s back.  As he wound it up, he heard his mother call to him, “Jacob, honey, where are you?”
            He shouted, automatically, “Coming, mom,” and continued to wind.
            Too late.  I have done what I have done, and it is too late.  Too late for Grandma Connie, too late for Mrs. Marshall, too late for my dad.  And too late for me.
            The springs reached full tension.  He set the mouse down, and said, “I wish I was dead.”
            The mouse started its chittering run, and Jacob felt a sensation of being lifted.  He was on his feet, turning toward the stairs.  And he thought, It was lying.  The mouse was lying.  It’s not just a tool; it’s evil.
            He felt his legs being forced to move.  A part of his brain shouted, Stop!  Stop! but his body wouldn’t obey.  It was a monumental effort to resist it, but he was able to turn and snatch the clockwork mouse up from the floor.  He felt its wheels turning frantically, their vibrations tickling his palm, and that was all his conscious will could do; his feet began to move, walking, then running, toward the top of the stairs, not pausing as the precipice approached.
            He saw the open door, and outside it the narrow staircase, rush toward him; and with a last desperate shout he hurled the clockwork mouse against the wall.  He heard it strike the metal hinge of the door frame, and saw it explode – wheels, cogs, and springs flying into the air about him.  The desperate force pushing him stopped suddenly.  His frame relaxed, and a smile crossed Jacob’s face, but his momentum shot him forward like an arrow from a bow.  His body, as graceful as a high diver, flung forward into the air, and he fell headlong down the stairs.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Germ Theory of Disease

A different take on werewolves in the state of Washington.


The Germ Theory of Disease

            Olivia Tanner realized it wasn’t going to be an ordinary ride home from work when a middle-aged businessman turned into a werewolf on the #217 bus from downtown Seattle to Bellevue.
            It was very late at night, one of the last bus runs of the evening, and there weren’t many people aboard – just herself, a nice-looking, well-built blond guy in jeans and a sweatshirt sitting across from her reading a Stephen King novel, a sleeping teenager in the back row, and one or two others.  Near the front was a suit-clad, overweight businessman, his balding head sporting a rather pathetic attempt at a combover.  He had a briefcase sitting on the seat next to him, and was looking at some papers in a manila folder.  There was no conversation, only the swish of the traffic, the whining of the bus engine, and the occasional burst of static and unintelligible talk from the bus driver’s intercom.
            They were on the middle of the I-90 bridge when it happened, which was an atrocious place for a werewolf to appear suddenly.  Even if the bus had stopped, there was nowhere useful to run, and given that it was night the choices would have boiled down to being eaten by the werewolf or getting run over by a car.
            She was staring out of the window into the darkness, thinking about how glad she’d be to get back to her apartment and her bed – when she heard a noise, like someone tearing a bedsheet.  She looked around, wondering what had happened, and that’s when she saw it.  Standing up from the seat where the businessman had been seated was a creature that was unmistakably a werewolf.  Its forehead was sloping, with dark, almond-shaped eyes and bristling brows.  It had a long, tapered snout, and as she stared at it, one side of the muzzle lifted, revealing a sharp yellow canine tooth.  Pointed ears, rimmed with coarse hair, stood up from the side of its head.  It gave a low snarl, and turned toward her.  Their eyes met, and the creature’s eyes narrowed.  As it turned, she saw that its body was still basically human, but muscled like no one she’d ever seen.  It was naked, its chest and back hairy, and was prodigiously male.  One hand came out – its nails were long, pointed claws, like an eagle’s talons – and it grasped the seat, steadying itself.  She heard the little popping sound as its hand closed on the headrest and the claws punctured the plastic lining.  Muscles in its abdomen and legs stood out, tensing, as it readied itself to jump at her.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

            Through all of this, Olivia sat completely still, transfixed, like a mouse mesmerized by a snake.  She shrank back, never taking her eyes off the werewolf, and tried to push her body backwards against the seat.  A whimpering noise came from her open mouth, but she couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream, couldn’t do anything but sit and wait for the thing to spring.
            Then she caught a second movement, from the blond man across the aisle, and she turned to see him rise from his seat.  But it wasn’t him – was it?  The man who now stood next to her, also mother-naked, muscles rippling, his face shining in its own light, had wings.  And a sword.  The sword was glowing so brightly in the dimly lit bus that Olivia could hardly look at it.  The wings, huge, feathered wings, speckled brown like a hawk’s, arose from broad shoulders.  His eyes were fixed on the monster in the aisle.  The werewolf swiveled its horrid head away from Olivia, and looked at the angelic figure blocking its way.  It gave a rough, angry growl, almost like a cough, and leapt at the winged man.
            As the werewolf passed Olivia, it made a sweeping pass at her face with one clawed hand.  She ducked, and felt the wind as it missed her by inches.  The winged man brought up his sword, and there was a swish and a thud, and the werewolf’s head flew backwards, landed in the aisle, and rolled under a seat.  Dark blood gouted up from the severed neck.  The werewolf’s clawed hands rose for a moment, as if to investigate this strange condition of being headless.  Then it realized it was dead, and tumbled forward with a crash.
            The angel figure let his sword drop to his side.  His other hand came up, and smoothed back his blond hair.  Olivia just stared, her eyes perfect circles of terror.  The man looked down at himself, seemed to realize that he was being watched by a strange woman while wearing nothing but an embarrassed smile.  He shrugged, and said, “Oops.”  Then he sat down in the seat, his wings giving a little rustling sound as they folded inward, and he once again became the tall, lean man with the Stephen King book, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt.  He looked over at her, smiled and shrugged again.  Olivia looked at the floor.  The body of the werewolf was gone.  Once more the businessman was sitting in his seat, his balding head shining a little in the light from the overhead fluorescents.  He seemed to be feeling ill.  He was sweating, and as she watched, he passed a hand across his face, and coughed.
            There were still puncture marks in the seat headrest two rows up.
            She looked back at the blond man, opened her mouth, and tried to think of something to say.  Nothing came out.
            “Hey,” he finally said.  “You want to go to the Starbucks in Eastgate and talk?”
            Olivia just nodded.  Afterwards, she was never sure why she acquiesced, but at the time, it seemed like the only possible thing to do.


            The blond man, whose name was Nathan Hendrickson, sat across from Olivia in the Starbucks, drinking a mocha cappuccino with extra whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkles.  A raspberry danish, so far untouched, sat on a plate in front of him.  At first they engaged in small talk.  Nathan said that he worked as a manager at Chili’s downtown, and Olivia responded that she was a clerk in a clothing store.  Both of them lived in Bellevue, took the bus because they hated the traffic, and had a serious sweet tooth.
            “But…” Olivia began, setting down her cup of vanilla chai and trying to think of how to phrase the question.
            “What the fuck just happened on the bus?” Nathan said, in a conversational voice.
            “Yeah,” Olivia said with some feeling.
            Nathan took a bite of his raspberry danish.  “It’s kind of hard to explain.”
            “I thought it would be.  But you’re the one who suggested we come here.  I figured you wanted to explain it.”
            “Well, let me just say this – check out the obituary columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer tomorrow.  The following day, at the latest.”
            “Looking for who?”
            “The bald guy.  He’ll be dead in twenty-four hours.”
            Olivia frowned, looked down, shook her head.  “Can you tell me what happened?  It looked to me like you saved my life.  But… Jesus.  You had wings.  And no clothes on.”
            Nathan blushed.  “Yeah, sorry about that.  It just happens.  I can’t take my clothes with me.”
            “It’s okay.  I mean, you…”  She stopped.  She’d been about to say, “You look just fine naked,” but decided that wasn’t something you said to someone you’d only met a half-hour ago, even if that person had just saved you from being ripped limb from limb by a werewolf.
            “The issue is, you weren’t supposed to see all that.  Most people can’t.  Didn’t it strike you as a little weird that no one else said anything, screamed, nothing?  The kid in the back didn’t even wake up.  The bus driver didn’t slam on the brakes.”
            “Of course.”  Truthfully, it hadn’t really registered with her until that moment.
            “Most people can’t see these… events.  When they happen.  Which isn’t often.”
            “So…that bald dude wasn’t really a werewolf?”
            “Well, he was.  But not what you probably think of when you think of the word ‘werewolf.’  You know, some dude who turns into a wolf at the full moon, rips people up, and so on.”
            “What is it, then?”
            “Well, you know about the germ theory of disease, right?”
            “It’s a theory?  I thought it was true.”
            Nathan smiled.  “Well, back in the nineteenth century, it was just a theory.  People had this idea that these little things, these blobs you can only see under a microscope, caused things like scarlet fever and cholera and diphtheria.  Other people said, ‘Bullshit.  Little things like that, causing people to cough their lungs up?  Ridiculous.’  There was one Scottish doctor who was so contemptuous of the germ theory of disease that he used to sharpen his scalpel on the sole of his boot before surgery.”
            “He must have had a hell of a lot of malpractice insurance.”
            “No such thing, in those days.  But the point is, what you can’t see can kill you.  It just took a while for them to figure it out.”
            “And this werewolf thing I saw…”  Olivia stopped, ending with an implied question mark.
            “It’s a disease of the mind.  A fatal one, sadly.  When you’re infected, your spirit becomes the beast that you saw.  It’s transmitted by… well, I guess you could call it psychic bites.”
            “Sort of like rabies.”
            “Sort of.  If that guy’s werewolf had bitten you, or scratched you, you’d have turned as well.  But I killed it before it could.”
            “And now he’s going to die?”
            Nathan nodded, looked down.  “Yes.  You can’t live without your spirit, or at least not very long.  The werewolf is a diseased spirit, but you still die if it’s killed.  Even though it’s diseased, it’s somehow keeping you alive.  Without it, you die.”  He paused, then said, “It’s like with heart disease.  Heart disease can kill you, but taking out your heart would kill you a lot faster.”  His face became serious.  “The difference is, heart disease doesn’t try to jump to innocent people around you.”
            “So the bald guy…”  Again she trailed off.
            “Will be found dead.  Soon.  It’ll probably look like he had a heart attack or stroke.  His death will be attributed to natural causes.  But it’s one less werewolf out there, biting people and spreading the infection.”
            “What would it have been like if I’d been bitten?”
            Nathan’s eyes narrowed.  “I don’t know.  It’s weird.  You could see it, and you could see me… or at least me as I, um… really am.  Most people can’t.  Most people… if they’re bitten, they just have a sudden twinge – a pang of pain, it feels like a pulled muscle or a sore joint.  But then within two weeks, they turn, and they’re out there biting others and spreading the infection, without knowing it.”  He paused.  “How it would have been for you, I don’t know, given that you would have seen what the werewolf was really doing.”
            Olivia didn’t answer for a moment.
            “That’s horrifying,” she finally said.
            “Yes.  That’s why I try to stop as many infected people as I can, before they can infect others.”
            “They have no idea they’re doing it?”
            “Not consciously.  But it does change their behavior, just like the rabies virus does.  Did you know that the rabies virus makes carnivores more aggressive, and herbivores more docile?  The virus does what it takes to spread – making a raccoon bite, or making a deer stand still and let itself be bitten – both of them serve to spread the virus to a new host.  In the case of this one, the person who’s been turned becomes more social.  They want to be around people.  They actually feel fit and energetic.  Their personalities become forward, pushy, extroverted.  You find a lot of ‘em in bars, dance clubs, at athletic events.  Eventually, they die – but it can take a year or two, and by that time they’ve usually infected hundreds of others.”
            Olivia shuddered.  “And you?  What are you?  Some kind of guardian angel, or something?”
            Nathan laughed.  “An angel?  Hardly.”
            “You have wings.”
            “Yeah.  So do sparrows.  That doesn’t make them angels.”
            “Okay, if you’re not an angel, what are you?”
            He grinned.  “I work for the Invisible Animal Control Department.  Or the Center for Psychic Disease Control.  However you want to look at it.”
            “So… you’re, like, the Naked Winged Werewolf Avenger, or something?”
            “I like that.  Can I use it?”
            Olivia just stared at him for a moment.  “Look,” she finally said.  “Be straight with me.  Am I losing my mind?  Because if I am… fuck.  I just want to know, okay?”
            “You’re not losing your mind.  What you saw was my spirit standing up and challenging the bald man’s werewolf spirit.  That’s why we were…. um, you know.  Naked.  No clothes allowed in the spirit world.”  He brightened.  “Your spirit is naked, too, you know.”
            “I’ve never seen it,” Olivia said, dryly.
            “Yeah, that’s a puzzler.  You weren’t supposed to see what you saw, and I honestly have no idea why you did.  But you’re not crazy.  You saw what was really happening.  It was the other people on the bus that didn’t.  All they would have seen is me and the bald dude, sitting there minding our own business.  No one else saw anything.”
            “Including that sword of yours cutting the werewolf’s head off?”
            “Yup.”  He grinned.  “And by the way, that sword only hurts werewolves.  No worries about my being armed and dangerous.”
            Olivia rolled her eyes a little.  “Trust me, at the moment that’s the least of my worries.”
            Nathan just grinned at her.
            “Now what do I do?  I mean, assuming that I actually believe all of this.”  And she suddenly realized that she did believe it.  There was no disputing what she’d seen, and Nathan’s explanation made as much sense as any other she could come up with.
            “I guess, we finish our coffee and pastries, and we both go home.”
            “And tomorrow, I just go to work, and you go back to… werewolf hunting?”
            “I have to work, too.  Werewolf hunting doesn’t pay my rent.”
            “Oh.”  She looked up at him.  “How do I avoid getting bitten?  I mean, you’re not going to be there next time, probably.”
            “Given that you can see them, you’ll at least have more of an advantage than other people.  But honestly, not that many people are werewolves.  I kill maybe three, four a month.  Five in a good month.  And that’s with going out to look for them, hanging out in werewolf-friendly places.  I get at least one a month right in Chili’s.”
            “Convenient for you.” 
            Nathan nodded.  “Yup.  But you shouldn’t worry.  Your likelihood of getting bitten, even if you couldn’t see them, is pretty small.”
            She looked at him, one eyebrow raised.  “Any chance I could take out some extra insurance?  You want to have dinner together some time?”
            Nathan gave her a dazzling smile.  “Sure.  I’m free tomorrow evening, in fact.  How about that new Japanese restaurant up in the University District?  I’ve been wanting to try it.”
            Nathan stood, and then went over, and gave her a light kiss on the mouth.  Olivia felt a tingling sensation, like a static shock.
            “You’re pretty forward yourself.”  She smiled up at him.
            “Can’t let the werewolves have all the fun.” 


            Olivia found the bald man’s obituary in the Post-Intelligencer two days later.
            It read:
Douglas J. Martin, 47, of Bellevue, died suddenly Tuesday morning.  He was a valued employee of Rush Life Insurance Agency of Seattle, where he had worked for fourteen years.  He was a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1985.  He was awarded an MBA in finance from the University of Washington in 1990.  Martin’s passing is mourned by a brother, Thomas, of Tacoma, and a sister, Mary McWilliams, of Tukwila.  He was preceded in death by his parents, Nelson and Denise (Trudell) Martin.

            Olivia looked down at the photograph of the suit-clad man, with his neat wire-framed glasses and his combover.  A shiver ran through her frame as she remembered the rippling muscles and yellow fangs of the werewolf he’d become.  He could have bitten or scratched her, infected her.  If he had, in a week or two she'd be out partying at bars, looking for victims without even knowing it.
            Or maybe she was losing her mind.  At the moment, those two possibilities seemed equally likely.


            One date with Nathan became two, then three, and pretty soon Olivia’s roommate, Andrea, was asking when she’d get to meet this blond god that Olivia was so taken with.
            “Soon,” Olivia said.  “I’ll have him over here for dinner some time.  Once we run out of new restaurants to try.”
            “That could take years.” Andrea wiggled her eyebrows.  “Maybe you’ll be having him come over for, you know.  Other reasons.  At some point.”
            “Maybe at some point.” 
            “You certainly have been seeing him a lot.  When have you been one to run off after the night life?  I always thought of you as being more of the come home early, cuddle up with a nice book type.”
            Olivia shrugged.  “I’m just having fun, that’s all.  Are you jealous?”
            “Yeah.  A little.  And if he turns out to be as gorgeous as you say, I’m going to be a lot jealous.”


            A little under three weeks later, she woke up on a Saturday morning with a sudden, stabbing pain, right behind both shoulder blades.  She yelped a little and reached back, but the pain was gone, as instantaneously as it had occurred.  After lying still for a moment, she wasn’t completely convinced that it’d been real, that she hadn’t dreamed it.
            She tried to relax, to go back to sleep, but she felt restless, with a fiery energy that was completely unlike her usual reluctance to get up on her days off.  Finally, she stretched, yawning, and went into the bathroom, and turned on the shower.
            As she was drying herself off, there it was, that jolt of pain again.  Once more she slid her hands over her bare shoulders.  Her skin felt normal, smooth, unmarked, and she massaged her shoulder muscles a little – but honestly, there was no reason to.  She felt fine.  Better than fine, actually.  She felt wonderful.  But why did she keep feeling that sudden twinge?
            She glanced in the mirror.  And only for a moment – in a flash nearly as quick as the pain had been – she saw a reflection of herself, her face shining from its own light, and behind her a pair of long, tapered wings, streaked like a falcon’s.  She gasped, and looked again – and she was back to being herself, just regular Olivia.  The whole thing had taken less than a second.  She reached back, feeling behind her, but there was nothing there.
            She leaned toward the mirror, mouth hanging open a little, and her image blurred, and there were the wings again, as if her body had hung back just for a little, had taken a while to catch up.  Then there was a shimmer as she became an ordinary human again.  Every time she moved, there was a quick image of a naked, shining, winged woman, who was clearly herself and yet so obviously not – and then like an image coming into focus, the vision would go away, and all she’d see was her own familiar form.
            And that was when she remembered their first kiss, when she’d felt an electric zing as their lips touched.
            Heart pounding, she turned off the shower, pulled on her bathrobe, and went into her bedroom, and picked up her cellphone and dialed it.
            “Hello?” said a sleepy voice.
            “It's Olivia.  Goddammit, I’ve… did you know you were contagious?”
            He sounded genuinely mystified.  “I am?”
            “Nathan, I’ve got wings.”
            “You do?  How’s that possible?”
            “Well, I think you’re the one who can tell me that.” Olivia tried to keep the indignation out of her voice, with only marginal success.  “You’ve infected me.  With, I don’t know, Contagious Naked Winged Werewolf Avenger disease, or something.”
            “I didn’t know it was contagious.”  He paused.  “Look, I’m sorry.  You already could see the werewolf, three weeks ago.  Maybe you were already infected somehow.”
            “I don’t think so,” Olivia said.  “I’m sure that this came from you.”
            “Sorry,” he said again.
            “Look, I’m not mad at you.  It’s more that I’d at least have liked to have had a choice in the matter.”
            “Germs don’t ask you if you want to be infected.  Remember the Germ Theory of Disease?”
            Olivia felt her wings flex, rustle quietly, and then with a shiver she sensed her newly winged spirit reintegrating with her body.  Really, she felt remarkably well.  Well enough to fly.  Maybe well enough to hunt werewolves.
            “Well,” she admitted, “I guess you have a point.”
             “I gotta say  it’s kinda cool.”  His voice rose with excitement, and she could virtually hear him smiling.  “I never thought I'd have a girlfriend who was... you know.  Like me.  Don’t you think this could be fun?”
            “Fun,” she said, and was silent for a moment.  Then something in her seemed to shift, and she hoped it wasn’t just the wings. “Okay, fine.  What the hell.  You know where I can get a sword?”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Summer's End

A short story about a synesthete taking a bicycle ride into town.


Summer’s End

            Days are dwindling
            Nights are growing
            Leaves are turning, dying, falling

            Colin Hayes woke up with the song in his head, and afterwards he realized that it probably explained why he thought of going to Zoe’s house in the first place.  The old melancholy Cailey Stephens song had appeared from nowhere, in the way that old melancholy songs do, flitting just on the edge of consciousness.  As he opened his last box of cereal and poured some into a bowl, he was humming it, a little off key, not even fully aware; as he sat at the table, eating it in dry mouthfuls, it was still there, the dark, minor key keyboard riffs fluttering around inside his skull.
            “Zoe,” he said aloud, the idea coming suddenly as he was washing up his bowl.  “I should go see if Zoe’s home.  I haven’t been there in years.  I haven’t even thought about her in months.”
            He got together a few things in his backpack, then closed and locked the front door of the little house he rented from Mrs. Debarra and walked out into the cool September morning.  I don’t know why I bother locking, he thought, as he walked down the sidewalk, the air smelling clean and fresh after the previous day’s rain.  There was hint of the smell of dying leaves; a brown smell, a curled and crisped smell, like butterscotch, like overdone toast.  I haven’t had toast in a long time, he thought.  Maybe I should figure out if I can make some toast when I get back.
            He passed the sleeping bulk of his gray Toyota Celica, running his fingers along its dusty surface.  His bicycle was in its customary location, leaning against the wall, and he checked the air pressure in the tires.  It was fine – they were holding air since he’d replaced the tubes three weeks ago with ones he’d gotten from the bike shop down the road.  He donned his helmet, swung a leg over the seat, and with a push on one of the pedals he coasted out of the garage and onto the rough gravel of the driveway.
            The rolling hills of upstate New York slid past, and the wind in his face carried smells that flowed over him and away.  Colin sometimes wondered if he could have cycled the thirty miles into town by his sense of smell alone, done it blindfolded, the colors in the air guiding him and showing him the way.  The acrid, but not unpleasant, gray-green smell of the cattle up at Carroll’s farm.  The cool, bright blue smell of the woods near Corley’s Crossing.  The placid smell, deep green like bottle glass, of the stream that bubbled its way under Tucker’s Bridge.  He saw the sheep up on the hill just past the stream, and they turned their long, foolish faces toward him, baaaing plaintively.  The sheep didn’t have much of a smell, not at this distance, and Colin wondered how much longer they’d be there, now that winter was coming.
            The road into town wound its way down from the hills, up and down but always further down than the next hill was up, and so descended into the valley.  The sun had risen above the treetops by then, and Colin stopped momentarily to pull off his shirt and stuff it into his backpack, enjoying the feeling of the fresh air and sunshine on his skin.  Maybe the pond near his house was still warm enough to go for a swim that afternoon; he’d have to see when he got back.

            My heart is empty, calling your name
            A bell ringing in the open sky

            It was nearly noon when he passed the vague boundary between the open farmland and hills, and the treed streets of the north end of town; houses began to pass by him with more frequency, and he saw a sign that said “M. C. Petrie Elementary School” with an arrow pointing off to the left, where a low brick building stood partially hidden in a maple grove.  The monkeybars and teeter-totters were empty at the moment, but Colin remembered the smells, the overwhelming smells, of paste and fingerpaints and modeling clay and the teacher’s perfume and the peculiar, beige-tinged scent of textbooks, and his mind was carried back to when he’d been that age, it was what?  Almost thirty years ago?  It hardly seemed possible.
            The school flew past as he coasted easily downhill, and he maneuvered around a truck that someone had left parked crooked, its tailgate hanging open, halfway out into the road.  Inconsiderate, that sort of thing.  Colin looked around for the truck’s owner, but his momentary thought that he’d like to tell him to move his damn truck, someone could get in a serious accident, slipped past as the truck disappeared behind him.  He passed a street sign – Torrance Road – and thought briefly about heading up that way, and seeing if his parents were home.  He was fairly certain they wouldn’t be, but he felt a twinge of guilt at riding on past, not even heading by and seeing if his dad was out mowing the lawn, or his mom doing the final garden cleanup before the hard freeze that was certain to come in the next few weeks.
            South of Torrance Road was a row of auto dealerships and car repair shops, and the faint, burnt-orange scent of motor oil clung like a low fog around them.  Colin wrinkled his nose.  He’d always hated that smell; it reminded him of his uncle, who was a mechanic and a bully, and whose hands always had faint dark lines where the soap couldn’t reach.  That smell always came with him, and Colin was glad that he hadn’t seen his uncle in a long time.  It was okay, that was okay with him, even if now Colin was as big as his uncle and unlikely to have his shoulder pinched or the back of his head slapped for saying something stupid.
            Zoe lived up on the west side of town, in a neat little subdivision near the high school.  It was her parents’ house; she’d gone to college to study architecture, but when the economy went south and the job market dried up, she’d come back home.  There’d been phone conversations – several of them – but they’d never progressed past, “How are you?”  and “I’m fine” and “How are your parents doing?” and “They’re fine.”  Colin had always intended to ask her out, see if she’d like to see a movie, maybe get dinner at the little Greek place on College Avenue, but his nerve had always failed him.  He pictured himself, suavely asking her to go out, then taking her out to a club afterwards for drinks and dancing.  Maybe bringing her back to his place after that (thirty miles out in the middle of nowhere, he thought, why would she want to go all the way out to your place?).  Then the thought that maybe she would ask him over to her place, maybe her parents would be away for the evening, maybe they could snuggle on the couch or even make out a little.  The daydream always stopped there; he wanted her, to feel her warm, tanned skin press against his, but it seemed too much to think about to consider that he could ever have made love to her.  He contented himself with the daydream of sitting on her parents’ couch, pressed together, her dark hair fanned out across his shoulder, holding her while she dozed.

            You will not answer, for you have gone
            Following the birds to other lands
            But still I seek you, still I want you
            Still I need to see your face again

            Zoe’s parents’ house was a tidy little Cape Cod on Carson Street, its front only set ten feet back from the maple-lined sidewalk.  Colin turned on Duvall Street, then took a right on Carson, and coasted the rest of the way to the fourth house on the left.  The neighborhood was quiet, a breeze rustling in the orange-streaked leaves of the trees, bringing that brown butterscotch scent of autumn to his nostrils.  Colin stopped, looking up at the house, and then leaned his bicycle against the nearest tree.  He reached into his backpack, and pulled out his shirt – somewhat rumpled from being balled up for the past two hours – and shrugged it on, tugging the bottom into place and hoping that he didn’t smell sweaty.  He didn’t think he did, but he also had heard you don’t always smell your own sweat, so he wasn’t really sure.  He’d run out of deodorant – and in any case the smell of anything but the unscented, hypoallergenic types was so strong that he couldn’t bear to use them.  The few times he had done so he got flashes of red and orange, sharp, hard-edged smells, from his own body, and it was so distracting that at the first chance he could he’d rushed home, stripped naked, gone to the shower, and scrubbed his skin until it was almost raw.
            He walked up the sidewalk to Zoe’s front steps, and climbed them to the front door, and knocked.

            I close my eyes and I can see you
            Feel your touch, feel your kiss
            But then you turn and walk away
            I open my eyes, and you’re gone

            No one answered his knock.
            It was possible, of course, that they were just out.  Colin thought that, standing there.  They’re just out.  They’re just away.  He knocked again, waiting for the sound of footsteps, then looked up and down the street.  A deer came out of the neighbor’s yard, regarding him with wary liquid eyes, and then turned away and began to munch on the overgrown twigs of a rhododendron bush.  Colin looked down the steps at the little front garden, that Zoe’s mother had so meticulously maintained.  Goldenrod and asters and witch grass grew up through the dying leaves of the peonies and sea holly and black-eyed susans.  She’d better do some weeding soon, Colin thought, before the ground freezes.  It’ll be too late, then, until next spring.
            He turned the handle of the door, and to his surprise, it opened, and he walked onto the front porch, his footsteps clunking hollowly on the wood planks.  The door of the house stood a little ajar, as if Zoe or her mom or dad had just come through it, off to check the mail or walk the dog or chat with the neighbor.  Colin pushed it open, calling, “Hello?”
            The house was a confusion of smells; old, very old, traces of the smells of cooking, gray with age; and a nearer, dark purple smell, hanging in the air like smoke.  A heavy smell, cloying, like dying lilacs.

            I dreamed of you, I dreamed you near
            I dreamed you lying next to me
            I dreamed you take your hand in mine
            Lead me to where you’ve gone

            It wasn’t until he entered the living room that he understood; or maybe he had understood, weeks, months, a year earlier, and just couldn’t bring himself to believe it.  She was lying on the sofa, one hand curled under her head, brown hair fanned out across the pillow.  There wasn’t much left but bones, not really; and the smell that was left wasn’t unpleasant, just dark, dark purple like stormclouds.  It would have been worse had he come sooner, that he knew; then it would have smelled black, black like the death it was, black like the death that had taken them all – all but him.  Maybe there were others, but if so, he hadn’t seen them, hadn’t seen another human being for over a year, from the time the epidemic had roared through, leaving only him.  Only him, and the crumbling remains of the world, breaking up and falling like the leaves in autumn.

            The world’s grown cold since last we met
            There’s nothing left for me here,
            There’s none to dry the tears I’ve wept
            There’s none to draw me near

            You will not answer, for you have gone
            Following the birds to other lands
            But still I seek you, still I want you
            Still I need to see your face again

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: Touched

Because of my thus-far questionably successful attempts to market my writing, I've joined several online networking sites, including Twitter.  One very positive side of all of this shameless self-promotion has been meeting a number of highly talented fellow writers, and getting an opportunity to read their work (which otherwise I probably never would have found).

A. J. Aalto stands out amongst these new e-friends as one of the funniest, quickest, and most creative people in the Twitterverse.  I have long since learned not to drink anything while reading her tweets, as I have on more than one occasion almost splattered the computer screen with coffee because of something hilarious she's posted.  So when I got my first e-reader, her book Touched was one of the first three I downloaded.

Touched (available at Amazon here) is the story of Marnie Baranuik, the rather manic psychic detective whose skills are enhanced through her relationship with Guy Harrick "Harry" von Dreppenstedt, who also happens to be a 435-year-old vampire (excuse me, "revenant" -- the undead resent being referred to by the v-word, and the last thing you want is a pissed-off revenant gunning for your sorry ass).  At the beginning of the book, Marnie has given up detecting for good and all, having had a rather painful experience during her last bout -- painful in both the literal and figurative sense, because of a gunshot wound and a passionate but brief relationship with Mark Batten, a fellow detective and fervent revenant-hater.  But circumstances are not going to allow Marnie to remain in early retirement for long, and those circumstances include bringing Batten back into all-too-close proximity.

What happens next would be spoiled by my giving any further details, but it is by turns screamingly funny, devastatingly ghastly (let's just say that the phrase "ghoul slime on the carpet" is one I never want to have to think about again), and all the way through a riproaring thriller.  But what sets this book apart from others in its genre is the characters; all too often, characters in paranormal thrillers are effectively interchangeable, and nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Touched.  From Marnie's frenetic and self-deprecating sardonic wit, to Harry's silk-over-a-sword-edge cordiality, to Batten's tough guy bluster, each of the characters rings as true as sterling.  We wouldn't even need "... said Marnie," "... said Harry," and so on to know who's talking.  And this extends even to the minor characters -- the occult-store owner Ruby Valli and the psychic detective wannabee Danika Sherlock are also brilliantly drawn.

But enough of that.  Do yourself a favor and buy Touched, but make sure you have enough time set aside over the next couple of weeks, because you won't want to put it down.