Poppet

Poppet sat quietly inside his enclosure wondering for the gazillionth time why nobody ever came to visit him. The enclosure seemed to be four feet by four feet and at least four feet tall. There was plenty of room. His closest neighbor, Clown, with the not-so-perfect make-up was only two feet high at best. Poppet didn’t care that his face was a little off, his features a bit skewed so it was difficult to look right at him all the time. Clown would fit inside the enclosure. Clown could hang out for a bit. Poppet tried to catch Clown’s eye.

“Hey Clown?”

Clown was still, tilting a little to the left, his back braced against the frame of an old, closed doorway, a meager sliver of light just visible at the bottom. Poppet thought Clown was probably still asleep even though his eyes were stuck open. He tried again, a little louder.

“Clown! Hey Clown? Wanna come over for a while?” Poppet listened, enthralled by the sound of his voice muffling against the walls of the enclosure. Had it always done that? Could Clown even hear him? The enclosure was pretty solid. “HEY CLOWN!” The enclosure vibrated a bit, the walls seeming to shudder then settled. Clown remained frozen, his face empty, eyes staring blindly into the void. Poppet huffed and scowled. Seriously, Clown had been asleep forever. Why couldn’t he wake up and just talk with him? They used to be pretty good friends back in the day. Poppet could remember talking with Clown about anything and everything, conversations that had gone on for days, weeks even. What had happened to them? Was it the door? Poppet gave the door a stern look, trying to remember when it had shown up? Had that been when Clown had started drifting away and dozing off? Was Door responsible? Come to think of it, Door had arrived at about the same time the enclosure had been built. Coincidence? Poppet stewed in contemplation and watched the shadows pass back and forth behind Door, the light changing with each crossing.

Laughter seemed to drift around outside Poppet’s enclosure. He turned his head to look for the source. All manner of things cluttered the perimeter of his vision, scattered and piled in such a way that it looked like a hoarder had once resided here. Poppet probed the darkness with his white-rimmed eyes, trying to focus on the items that were closest. The light had dimmed so much that nothing seemed entirely solid anymore and it was difficult to see everything as well as he once had. He thought the shape over there was a stuffed bear. He could remember a bear being there, its fur matted and worn, large patches of fabric showing through on the belly. Ignoring the fact that Bear seemed to have a personal friend curled under one arm, a large, black spider with gigantic eyes, Poppet called out through the enclosure.

“Bear? Bear, didn’t you used to be a pillow?” His voice bounced back, muffled and lifeless. Bear probably couldn’t hear him any better than Clown had. When had the enclosure become so strong?

A short distance past Bear lay another shape that Poppet recognized and he felt excitement spark in his chest. Forgetting himself he grinned like a fool.

“Sock Monkey! My old friend! How have you been?”

Sock Monkey lay almost on his side, one long arm thrown up over his face, the other sticking straight out on the other side. Both legs curled gently backwards, his feet stopping only a couple inches from his once bright, red bottom. Poppet could see Sock Monkey’s face reflecting in the old, dusty mirror beside him, the spidery, broken glass showing multiple views of his profile. His red mouth was closed and his eyes were open, empty of life. He and Sock Monkey had shared some good laughs. Everything had been a joke to Sock Monkey. Poppet’s smile faded as he realized that Sock Monkey, like Clown and Bear seemed to be asleep.

“Won’t anyone wake up? Won’t anyone talk to me?”

Clown seemed to shimmer a bit in the dusty light. Poppet watched him, waiting for a sign that Clown was awake. He spotted the string around Clown’s neck, a black lanyard ending in a clear, plastic rectangle. Had that been there before? He couldn’t remember.

The enclosure itself seemed different to Poppet. It was the same three by three space it had always been. He studied the walls, clear like glass but solid like stone. Poppet imagined it had been bigger and not so hard once, but he couldn’t be sure. The heavy, gray chains wrapped around it looked as sturdy as ever. Poppet yawned. A two by two space was pretty roomy when it was all his own. Lazily he watched the shapes around him, each one dark and immobile. Yup, good thing he didn’t have to share his area. This place was barely big enough for him. With his head and limbs resting against the enclosure Poppet slept.

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The Box Baby

My right ear felt stuffy, like there was water in it. I was pretty sure there wasn’t since I hadn’t showered in two days but I tilted my head toward my shoulder anyway and tried to stretch it open with my finger. This never works. I kept trying though. After several minutes of impressing my two tabby cats with my antics I gave up and let adult reasoning intervene, accepting the probability that my right sinus was just congested from the intense heat of the previous day. Summer storms were very enjoyable to me but needed to be treated like an allergy nightmare. Once the heat index rose above seventy-five I had to assemble my bottles of allergy medications and sinus decongestants along the kitchen counter like toy soldiers preparing for combat. As it turned out, my decongestant was nearly empty. A trip to the corner store was added to my list of stops to make on my morning walk. I whipped my lanky brown hair into a ponytail, grabbed my bag which held my phone, sketch pad and wallet and headed for the door only to open it wide then close it immediately and go back to search for my keys. I located them on top of the microwave in the kitchen, right where I had spat them while lugging in a twenty pound bag of cat food the other day along with a heavy plastic jug of litter. My boys were chunky and spoiled. I took better care of them than I did of myself. My ear swished annoyingly, keeping time with my heartbeat. The store would have to be the first stop.

The sun may actually be shining at 5:00 am in June but that didn’t mean a lot of people were moving around. I liked to walk at this time strictly for the solitude I could enjoy. For almost two hours I was free to explore my neighborhood and sketch whatever I wanted without a lot of people driving through my scene. One of my favorite things to draw was the old church on the corner, the one with the little school attached and the small playground. I avoided the place during business hours because I viewed children as demons and didn’t like to be around them, but at 5:00 am I could sit on the iron bench in front of the main church doors and sketch the swings and the slide and the weird animals that rocked back and forth on thick springs without fear of tiny screams shattering my mind. Also, not being viewed as a predator against the young ones was a good thing.  The store was in the opposite direction of the church so I decided to end my proposed four block hike by traveling clockwise today and ending on the church bench instead of starting there.

Innocent looking, innocuous really, the box sat right at the point where the store’s parking lot intersected the sidewalk. I drifted to a cautious halt. All my instincts said to just go around, avoid it, pretend I don’t see it. I edged toward it, listening to my ear swish like a conch shell. I should just walk into the store, get the decongestant and get on with my walk. My sketch book wasn’t going to fill itself now, was it? I took another step toward the box. My eyes felt like they were stretching inside their sockets as they widened, looking for small, flying monsters with jousting lances built into their backsides. I knew they were there. I could feel them pulsing like ocean waves. I wanted to look in the box. I’d never looked in a roadside box before. Always the good girl, never breaking the rules or even bending them very far, I had a solid twenty-six years of training struggling with my curiosity, trying to talk me into just walking away. I took another step toward the box.

Box babies are something of an urban legend here. They are rumored to be evil little incarnations, modern day changelings hidden in abandoned boxes and protected by wasps. If you were unfortunate enough to find one it would suck out the hope and happiness in your life, leaving you a wasted wreck of humanity and shunned by all. As a teenager my friends and I would push and shove each other toward roadside boxes as a joke, daring each other to look inside and find the baby. We never looked. The risk was too great for us Emo kids. Since I’ve never lived anyplace other than Milwaukee I can’t speak to them existing in other cities or states or even countries. I’ve never searched for them on the great oracle of Google and I’ve never personally known anyone who found one. With all of that being said, my heart was pounding ferociously in my chest as I took the final step to the box, its open flaps casually inviting me to have a glance at its contents. Looking back on that moment later I would be inclined to point the finger of assisted-guilt right smack at the box itself. It knew what it was doing. Of course, I should have known better, I was the adult after all. My head tipped upward just a bit as I raised my line of sight and looked directly into the box.

It was a baby, a normal, pink, naked baby with a full head of curly, golden hair.  Stupidly I stared at it, my heart still hammering and my ear still swishing. Who the hell would leave a baby in a box on the side of a road? In one second I had gone from a thrill-seeking rebel with a genuine fear of what I was going to see to an outraged citizen staring at a helpless infant left in a cardboard box outside a corner store. For just a second it occurred to me that the church on the other corner with its ridiculous sign would have been a more appropriate location for the box.

I bent over and looked closer at the infant, my mouth twisting into a reflexive smile that stemmed from some built-in genetic need to put those without self-awareness at ease. What was I going to do with it? I couldn’t just leave it there. It was a baby for God’s sake! I couldn’t even rationalize myself into just going into the store to get my decongestant and seeing if it was still here when I came out. The idea was completely insane. I needed to pick that naked thing up and take it with me. I needed to put a diaper on it and feed it something. Oh Christ! What the hell had I done? The financial effects of just looking inside the box rolled over me, a money-hungry machine that pressed my spirit down to half its normal size. My hands reached into the box of their own volition and picked up the infant, bringing it to my chest where I cradled it gently, inhaling its scent which strangely reminded of jack fruit and the gum I used to chew when I was a child. I began to coo at it like a demented pigeon. Filled with purpose I headed toward the store, my shopping list expanding exponentially with each step. Just as my foot was about to land on the sidewalk I got a shiver across my shoulders. I looked back at the box and saw the wasp floating up like a blackened piece of dandelion fluff, a single soldier scouting the target. The smell of jack fruit drifted into my sinuses. It was just a wasp after all.

The store was open twenty-four hours. The automatic doors swished as I strode in, the baby held snugly against me.

“Welcome to Walter Greens.” the cashier called out. I paused to look at her.

“Where are the diapers?” Her eyes locked onto the infant in my arms and widened.

“You can’t bring that in here,” she stated and pressed her hands flat on the counter, her manner changing instantly to aggression. I goggled at her.

“It’s a baby,” I snarled, my voice sounding vapid even to me and for a second I wondered at my abrupt change of opinion. And then made a quick check of the child in my arms. “A boy!”

“Ma’am, you need to take that outside right now or I’m going to call the Police.” Blue eyes flashed at me, warning me to not argue. I inhaled deeply and let it out through my nostrils in a harsh blast as I stared her down. From the look of her tense shoulders and the hard, frozen expression on her face I didn’t doubt that she would pick up that phone and make good on her threat but, I needed things. The baby needed things. I couldn’t leave without them. It was unthinkable. I tried for a compromise.

“If I take him outside and give you my credit card and a list of the things I need can you get them for me? I won’t leave the baby by itself,” I said protectively. “Please?” I added as she opened her mouth to confirm what her shaking head was starting to tell me. She paused and narrowed her eyes at me.

“You have lost your mind,” she stated. I bristled internally at the blunt insult but didn’t react, hoping she would be content with that small victory and agree to my request. I watched her turn the idea over in her head. I could see that she didn’t want to actually call the police but the thought of doing a little shopping aisle recon for me seemed just as distasteful. I was astounded by how callous this lady was being. I stood before her carrying a naked child in my arms and she was acting like I had brought a nasty slug into the store. “Fine,” she said. “Go outside and make your list.” Her eyes never left the baby. “Leave your credit card.” Feeling absurdly grateful I shifted the infant a bit to allow me to free one hand and dig in my bag for my wallet. I thumbed out my credit card and let it drop to the floor at my feet then cocked a questioning eyebrow at her. She nodded slightly. My offering was accepted. I headed back out the door.

It took me a few minutes to get my sketch pad out and scribble a legible list of things while holding the baby. I now understood why new parents looked so awkward all the time when they tried to do normal things like use an ATM machine while holding their children. Fortunately the infant didn’t move much while I struggled to write. He didn’t seem to move at all really, just his eyes, bright blue orbs that seemed to study me. I found myself forgetting to move the pencil as I looked back at him, charmed by the innocent expression. Babies weren’t so bad.

Car tires crunching on the pebble-strewn asphalt pulled me away from my study and I glanced up to see a silver sedan pulling into the handicapped parking space right in front of the door. The driver, an older lady with silver framed glasses and pursed lips shifted into park and cut the engine, tossing a casual look at me sitting on the bench with my sketch book and the infant in my arms. The driver’s door opened then stopped, the woman’s eyes fixed on me and her mouth sort of fell open. I felt another chill roll across my shoulders. What the hell? I hugged the baby close, pressing its face against my chest. The car door closed with the woman still inside. The engine started and the sedan backed away. Worry knotted my stomach as I watched it leave. I needed to just go home. I tore the shopping list free, stuffed pad and pencil back into my bag and stood up from the bench. Hopefully the cashier would be quick.

Facing the door I started to step into the sensor range and froze. The cashier was still behind the counter, now holding my credit card and talking on the phone. Her head bobbed up and down as she nodded agreement with whatever she saying. Somehow I didn’t think she was just validating my card. I swung my foot in front of the door sensor and the door swished open. The cashier turned her head, saw me standing there and narrowed her eyes as she continued her conversation, her lips forming the words she’s coming back in right now. I was betrayed. In an instant I felt severe hatred charging through me on a rush of adrenaline. We had an agreement! I left my credit card in good faith!

A very reasonable voice spoke up in my mind, suggesting that police might be a good thing. I had found a baby in a box on the side of the road. Obviously it wasn’t just a misplaced item. Someone put it there on purpose. The baby needed to be cared for and it’s parents found. I should just sit back down on the bench and wait for the cops to arrive.

Reason wasn’t enough though. My feeling of ownership of this precious, sweet smelling boy had already become strong. If the police came this little angel would be taken from me. I would have to give him up completely. Panic fluttered inside my chest, pushing the hateful anger away. I needed to do something. Turning on my heel I stalked away from the store and headed for home. At least there I would be able to think without someone staring at me like I had sprouted a second head.

The trip back took less than five minutes, almost a record for me since I wasn’t usually a fast walker. I have short legs, one of the disadvantages of being less than average height. The baby made the trip in complete silence, it’s little body forming to mine as we moved along. I should have wondered about the child. No baby was that quiet or that still. He never made so much as a squeak as I jogged with him up the stairs to my apartment. I even jostled him a little harshly as I contorted to get at my keys, fit them in the lock and turn the deadbolt, compulsively apologizing for the rude movements the whole time. The infant didn’t complain, he just looked at me with those amazing blue eyes. Did all babies smell like fruit?

The cats greeted me at the door, pressing against my ankles and meowing for attention. I kicked them away, carrying my baby to the living room and plopped myself down on the cheap, Goodwill couch. The boys jumped up beside me for a second, curiously sniffing at the bundle in my arms. Sarge, the round, orange tabby wrinkled his nose and backed away. Surprised at his reaction I shifted the baby to my other side, away from him.

“What’s wrong Sarge?” I got a long, hostile hiss in response and Sarge leaped off the couch and darted into the kitchen. “Well, that was unfriendly.” I stared at the edge of the kitchen doorway, waiting to see him stick his head out so I could glower at him. He didn’t cooperate but I could hear a very distinct feline growl. The younger of the pair, Casius, stayed on the end of the couch for a moment, his nose twitching like a rabbit while his eyes grew wider and wider. I reached out a free hand to pat him reassuringly on the head, thinking he would feel better if I let him sniff the baby. My hand never made contact. Casius let out the closest thing to a roar he could make and quick as lightening slapped my hand with his paw, all the nails extended. My skin tore open in three long gashes, blood welling up instantly and running down toward my wrist.

“You little bastard!” I jerked back from him, my body turning instinctively to protect the baby. Casius hissed and bounded toward the kitchen, his body flying up in the air and stretching into a run before he had even landed. Both cats were now out of sight growling in unison, a duet of angry felines in A minor. For the first time the infant moved in my arms, a shiver that seemed to undulate from the top of its head down to his feet. Another genetic reflex possessed me and I apologized for swearing in his presence then started cooing at him again. His light, barely visible brows furrowed slightly then relaxed and a tiny smile seemed to tug at his little, pink lips. For just a second I thought his pupils expanded as we stared at each other. I wasn’t sure, even after gazing at him for several moments. The growling from the kitchen rose in pitch, intruding on my adoration. Blinking several times I tore my eyes away from the baby and looked toward the kitchen.

“You two need to get a grip,” I stated. And I needed to find something to use as a diaper as well as bandage my scratches before I got blood all over the baby. Getting up I carefully carried the baby to the bathroom and rummaged in the medicine chest for salve and bandages. What I found was a box of the littlest ones, rectangular but so small they were only suitable for things like paper cuts. They would have to do. I snatched my one and only hand towel from the circular holder above the sink to use as a diaper. When I entered the kitchen to pilfer duct tape from my junk drawer the cats backed away in panic, smashing into each other and curling into puffed up hissing balls trying to become one with the broiler part of my oven. They never acted this way. They had always been loving, purring companions, my confidants and closest friends. That they should be emotionally defecting at this particular time seemed very selfish to me. I eyed them with disgust, my lips thinning tightly together. For just that instant I became aware again of the congestion in my ear, the swishing sound echoing my heartbeat. No decongestant. No diapers. No baby food.

I returned to the living room with my collection of things and sat down heavily on the couch, the infant in my arms as silent as ever. What was I going to do? With my credit card gone I had no way of buying anything. My bank account was very meager at the moment so any thought I might have had of withdrawing a few bucks to allow me a shopping venture was just out of the question. My fridge wasn’t stocked for infants. I couldn’t very well pop a ham and cheese pocket into the microwave for him. I also doubted that warm soda or tea would be well received. Not being a fan of cold beverages I stored them in the cupboard. I didn’t even have ice cube trays lest I be tempted to cool something down then get angry with myself when my stomach hurt from it.

“First things first,” I said aloud. Feeling a pang of separation I laid the infant on the couch, keeping his legs draped over my thigh, and proceeded to wrap the towel around his nethers in as close to a diaper formation as I could, securing it with strips of thick, gray duct tape. He stared at me the entire time, blue eyes fastened on mine, never blinking, mewling or fussing. He was such a little angel. How could anyone abandon him? I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting him. Laying a hand on his chubby stomach I smiled broadly at him.

“Look at you!” I gushed. “Look how handsome you are with your olive-green-towel-diaper.” He continued looking back at me and seemed to smell even more like fruit. My nostrils flared a trifle as the odor seemed to become a bit heavy, over-ripe. Dismissing it I gathered him into my arms and sat back, cuddling him close, thinking hard on where I was going to get something to feed him. That cashier had really tossed a wrench into things.

As if in response to the thought a heavy knocking at the door jerked from my contemplation. My heart plunged into my stomach and sat there beating frantically. I glanced at my patio door and briefly wondered if I could swing and drop to the ground while holding the baby? Doubtful. I may only be on the second floor but the ground below was asphalt, not soft grass and soil. If I fell and landed on the infant… That thought trailed off in horror. No, trying to escape was not an option. The knocking came again, this time accompanied by a man’s voice.

“Milwaukee PD. Open the door!”

Crap! Why were the police here? I hadn’t even done anything. This was absurd. Anger flooded through me. I was not the enemy. Whoever had left this sweet baby in a box was the person they should be looking for, not me. Then it occurred to me that perhaps that was exactly why they were here. Maybe they were going to find the parents and arrest them? Without thinking further I stood up. The infant in my arms squirmed and I looked down at him in surprise. The blue of his eyes was nearly dwarfed by the black of the pupils. Jack fruit, warm and rotting. I wrinkled my nose at him.

“We need to fix your diet little man.” I headed for the door.

The two officers standing in the hall stepped backwards in unison as I snatched open the door. The younger one covered his nose. He was slightly built and seemed to still be carrying baby fat in his cheeks. Both men were dressed in the standard navy blue with their hats squarely on their heads.  Very professional.

“Are you here about the baby?” Nervously I charged right into the conversation, feeling defensive and looking for any upper hand I could get.

“Yes ma’am. I’m Officer Wayne and this is my partner Officer Calbright.” He spoke carefully. “We received a call from the cashier at Walter Green on the corner that you tried to enter the store with that thi… baby.” I caught the slip and narrowed my eyes at him. “Can you come into the hall please?” Officer Wayne seemed friendly enough but I wasn’t ready to hand out my trust to someone who had obviously tracked me down through my stolen credit card. A door opened down the hall and I heard a judgmental hmpf. Damn nosy neighbors.

“What are you going to do about the people that just left this little boy on the side of the road?” I shifted the baby to one side so I could gesture freely with one hand. “In a box of all the things! He could have been hit by a car.” I watched Officer Wayne’s face as I spoke, looking for some sign that he was as shocked by the possibility as I was and willing to search for the heartless bastard who had done this. What I saw was a carefully composed expression on the face of a middle-aged man who was being cautious.

“Ma’am, are you bleeding? Could you set that baby down for a moment and let me take a look at your hand?”

“Set it down?” I nearly laughed at him. “Where? On the floor?” Of course I was bleeding. I had diapered my boy and forgotten to dress my scratches. The cats were still in the kitchen growling, I could hear the ungrateful wretches clear as day. Officer Wayne seemed to hear them too, his eyes probed behind me.

“Yes ma’am. Right on the floor at your feet.” He wasn’t joking. He focused his eyes back on me. Confusion crept up my backbone and I began to stammer.

“That’s just stupid… on the floor. Who… why would I put the baby on the floor?” I backed slowly away from the door intending to slam it shut and flip the deadbolt, locking them out. I didn’t want to talk to them anymore. The baby squirmed again in my grasp, a strange movement that didn’t seem to involve any specific limb, no thrashing or shaking of fists, arms or feet, just a full body flexing.

Officer Wayne moved forward, maintaining the spacing between us and his hand rose to push the door open and away from me. Not knowing what else to do I took another step backward. He stepped forward again, crossing my threshold.

“Please ma’am. Let us help you. Just set the baby down.” Behind him, Officer Calbright held up his cellphone and pointed it at me. My face twisted into a snarl.

“What the hell are you doing?” I growled. “Are you going to take a selfie next? Do you have a Facebook fan club for your photos?” I heard the digital shutter click and knew I had just been immortalized. I stalked forward intending to slap the phone right out of Officer Calbright’s hand and in my fury nearly pushed Officer Wayne into the wall. He leaped backward in a clear attempt to not be touched, his feet landing right in the middle of the doorway. I stopped and looked at him surprised. His squared face paled with shock and his pupils dilated. His right hand clasped the handle of the gun on his belt and the securing strap was already released.

“Ma’am, put that thing down right now and step back!” All pretenses of helping were gone. The tone of his voice was harsh and demanding. I froze. “Put it down right now and step back or I will draw my weapon.”

“And what?” I asked. My voice sounded stronger than I felt and echoed slightly inside my head as my ear reasserted its congestion. My insides had turned to water and tremors of fear were shivering along my limbs. I squeezed the baby to my chest and tears began to sting my eyes. “Will you shoot me then?” Officer Wayne didn’t bat an eyelash at my distress.

“Yes,” he stated. “I will shoot you.” Officer Calbright, looking just as pale as his partner, edged forward, his phone still in his hand but it was no longer directed at me. Officer Wayne waved him back. “Not yet. She has to put it down first.”

Feeling cornered I hugged the baby once more, inhaling the fruity smell that was definitely becoming rancid. I was out of options.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered into the top of its head and pressed my lips to it, the soft, golden locks tickling the tip of my nose. “I’m so sorry.” Stooping I shifted the baby from my arms and laid him on the floor at my feet. Closing my eyes I straightened and backed a couple steps away from the door, exhaling slowly and counting to ten, trying to not hear the men’s movement as they closed in on me. When I looked again Officer Calbright was standing directly in front of me holding his phone up so I could see the photograph he had taken.

There I was, my face angrier looking than I had ever seen, clutching the tattered remains of… something… skeletal. It had definitely been a baby, once, my olive green hand towel was duct taped around the bottom half. My clothes, hands and cheeks were covered with pieces of gray, rotting skin. I gaped at the picture, my jaw dropping open.

I looked down at myself horror filling every inch of my mind, blocking out the sounds of my cats wailing in the next room. I was covered in rotting flesh. I could smell it. Jack fruit? Not hardly. It was the foul, undying smell of decay that would linger in your sinuses for days. I backed farther away, panic seizing my brain. A glance at the floor where I had laid the baby, after whispering my apology onto it’s head with my lips brushing over it was the final straw. The gray bones lay in a heap on the floor, it’s skin lying in tattered pieces on my entryway carpet. Small, white maggots feasted all over it, the remains of the internal organs providing a buffet for them all. The skull was facing me, the eye sockets completely empty. The little forehead sprouted to two small bumps above where each eyebrow would have been. I lost all control and began to scream.

Intersection

Targe never saw the woman cross the street. He hadn’t seen her step off the curb, she just seemed to be in the middle of the road. It wasn’t like he made a habit of monitoring all the crossing points of an intersection, he didn’t, but this particular intersection was practically empty of pedestrians. Cars were backed up in all four directions but walkers were nearly non-existent today, except for himself and the elderly woman sporting a very bright, blue sweater. Where had she come from? Why was she just standing there?

Feeling like he should do something Targe walked toward her, the safe, anonymity of the sidewalk falling behind him. He tried to catch her eye as he approached, his boots thunking audibly against the asphalt despite the heated rumble of many engines held in check. The lunch hour was closing in. The digital bank sign to the east flashed 11:26 am followed by the temperature, seventy-six degrees. If the morning weather man was correct things were going to get much hotter and storms would be crashing by six o’clock. It was unreasonable for Targe to think the woman might be caught in a down-pour that was over six hours away but the idea still flashed into his mind. He could see her, very clearly, standing in the middle of this same intersection while clouds rolled back and forth above her, thunder snarling angrily, hair slicked flat to her head. A strong feeling of deja vu washed over and his feet hesitated for second as he tried to shake it then continued walking, his mind focused on the woman.

“Ma’am? Ma’am, can I help you?” Without thinking Targe spread his arms apart, effectively corralling the woman with his open hands, a hug interrupted. He looked into her face, searching for something that might connect them. Brownish golden eyes stared right through him, focused on something else, something other than that moment. “Ma’am?” He passed his left hand up and down in front of her face, noting that her eyes didn’t track the movement.

“Excuse me? Do you any aspirin?”

Targe’s jaw fell open a bit and his eyes widened in surprise. She wasn’t looking at him. Who was she talking to? He couldn’t stop himself from speaking.

“What?”

“My ankle is killing me. It’s all swollen and really hurts to walk on.” The woman bent at the waist just far enough to pull at her pant leg and expose a smooth, unmarred, nylon protected ankle joint. “It’s so painful!”

Apprehension tightened Targe’s lower back. He glanced back at the sidewalk and the corner he had left to come here and try to help. A car horn beeped lightly behind him, the noise making him jump and compulsively he tried to cover the weakness by closing one hand around the woman’s elbow. She was warm but stiff, not the pliant flesh and bone he had naturally expected and her body heat was subdued, as if it came from deep inside and had lost much of its radiance before reaching her extremities.

Another horn beeped followed by a longer, lower blast to his left. The lunch crowd was getting restless. Targe needed to get the lady out of the street and onto the sidewalk. Gently he pulled at her elbow, hoping she would just follow him to the curb. He may as well have tugged on the street itself. The woman remained solidly in place, a physical fixture in the crosswalk. She didn’t seem to have even noticed Targe or his hand on her. He goggled at her in  confusion.

“I don’t know what happened, it just started hurting and now I can barely walk on it.” She was studying her ankle, he collar length light brown hair, over-due for a touch-up on the roots, wisping around her face, responding to a breeze that Targe didn’t feel. The bottom of her button-down sweater seemed to sway in time with her hair. Targe glanced again at the bank clock. Seventy-eight degrees. Things were heating up.

“Ma’am please, you need to get out of the road.” It felt like an empty effort but he couldn’t help himself. He pulled at her again. His heart skipped as the woman glanced in his direction, a curious look crossing her face. Had she heard him? He saw her eyes narrow.

“Excuse me. Are you listening?” Her lips moved in time with the words but her voice seemed to drift backwards, away from his ears.

“Ma’am?” Targe felt sweat pop up on his forehead and begin to roll down toward his eyes. A chill seemed to pass through him, a shiver that shook his shoulders. It did nothing to cool him though

“Hey mister?” The voice of a young boy, distant and breathy behind him. Targe ignored it, focusing on the woman in front of his eyes.

“Come on lady, I’m going to walk you to the curb.”

“Well, that’s rude. The least you could do is look at me.”

Who the hell was she talking to? Targe could tell she wasn’t talking to him. The small glance in his direction had been more like a response to a mosquito than her actually responding to him. A drop of sweat trickled from his temple down to his jaw. He turned his head and brushed his chin against his shoulder. He absolutely hated sweating. If he wasn’t working out or playing a sport then sweating was his sworn enemy.

“Mister? You should get out of the street.”

Eighty-one degrees. Targe stared at the bank sign in disbelief. The temperature had risen five degrees in only a few minutes! 1:34 pm. What the hell? Panic rolled through him and he squeezed the woman’s arm.

“Lady! Look at me!”

A small hand patted Targe’s arm.

“Mister, can you see me?”

Another horn blast, this one longer but fainter, barely getting Targe’s attention. Anger through him and he turned his head, eyes narrowed, searching for the offender. To his horror all the vehicles surrounding him were now the same make and model, each one stretching like a limousine. The longest limos to ever exist, the back ends vanished into sharp points at the very edges of his visual perception. All four directions looked identical, each with a bank sign flashing ninety-four degrees. Sweat poured down Targe’s face, the trails making his skin twitch. His shirt, a long-sleeved button-down that had seemed perfect when he had put it on that morning now felt like an itchy wet sack stuck to his torso and upper arms, the neck as scratchy as fine sandpaper. He wanted to pluck at the fabric, to undo the buttons and find some relief but he couldn’t. His empty hand remained outstretched in a permanent welcoming gesture while his other hand gripped the lady by her elbow. The boy’s voice continued incessantly behind him, the hand patting his arm non-stop.

The last rational thought Targe had was of himself as a kid, standing in the changing room of a department store, caught in that one spot between the mirrors where he could look at himself, replicated in all directions, forever.

The Casino of Light

Shane made his way back to the black jack pit with slow, plodding steps, his black shoes flashing little pieces of light. He could see they needed buffing. Another week and someone would start riding him about it. All employees will be neat and professional at all times. They are a visual representation of the company. His mind ran through the words in a sing-song cadence. Just thinking about it made his shoulders slump further and for the umpteenth time he wondered how he had come to work here? His life had been rough but it really hadn’t been so bad that offering himself to the Casino of Light was his only option.

Other dealers flanked him as he walked, heads drooping, eyes fading. All of them were slender, frail looking people clothed in black, polyester tuxedo pants and royal blue shirts that were buttoned all the way to their throats. The last uniform they would ever wear. Shane felt a stray wisp of his dark hair tickle his forehead as he walked. Not every hair could be contained in his ponytail. During rare moments of vanity he thought the stray pieces made him look a bit rugged. Not that it mattered really, his chances of ever getting a date again were slim unless he could hold onto enough of himself to actually climb the company ladder and acquire the ability to feed.

Entering the pit through the south end Shane tipped the brass pole to one side, stepping carelessly over it and ignoring the blood red velvet rope strung between it and the next pole. Jonathan frowned at him.

“Enter through the rope like you’re supposed to, not around it.”

Like a vending machine Shane felt his spirit dispense a small amount of itself, the light within him diminishing a nearly imperceptible amount. Nodding his agreement to his Floor Supervisor, Shane headed for his table, tapping the relief dealer on the shoulder to signal him to finish up and move along to the next dealer. He could have just walked in through the rope and saved himself the pain but, the point seemed lost. His soul was vanishing regardless. Dropping his left hand onto the plastic shoe Shane jiggled it briefly to loosen the flow of the cards then swept his right hand across the layout and announced, “Bets are open.”

Jonathan stood just outside of Shane’s peripheral vision, watching, his round, healthy cheeks bunched in a smug grin. Shane dealt his game, each card precisely located on the felt and made a point to count clearly and accurately for the players. He couldn’t see Jonathan without turning his head too far, rounding it was called, but he could feel him back there, waiting to lap up the crumbs left by the players each time they nibbled at him.

An hour later the relief dealer returned and tapped him on the shoulder. Shane pulled the shoe to the center of the table and turned it inwards so the hole faced his tray of chips before clapping his hands and showing them, palms up, to the camera above. He stepped to the right and left his table. Jonathan was waiting for him, a snake-like look in his eyes. Shane noted the little flakes of dandruff powdering Jonathan’s shoulders. Only two hours into the shift and the guy was already snowing. Probably should lay off the mousse, it aggravated dry scalp issues.

“You need to watch your players better.” Soft, fleshy hands rose, still clasped together to gesture vaguely at the black jack table. “The guy on first base has tried to cap his bet four times in the last hour.”

“I know,” Shane replied feeling a low rise of irritation. “He hasn’t been successful or I would have called you over. That is the proper procedure, right?” You already had your bite tonight you little mole. Go chew on somebody else.

Jonathan breathed in and out through his nostrils, staring at Shane’s eyes. Then he shrugged.

“Yes, that is the right procedure. Keep an eye on the guy though.”

“Sure thing,” Shane said. He let his eyes travel over Jonathan’s outfit, a cheap off-the-rack number that bagged just a little bit too much through the chest. “Can I go?” Jonathan waved him off like someone swatting at a gnat. “Nice suit,” Shane muttered and headed for the rope.

“What was that?”

Shane didn’t bother turning around.

“Shiny!” he called back. “Very shiny!”

 

(Casino of Light – 2 here)

The Gargoyle Queen

So Rainbow, do both of your mothers work?” Mrs. Thompson took a drag off her cigarette, a long, brown Saratoga that smelled like an old, well-worn sock. Calvin felt his palms instantly break into a sweat as his mom’s blue eyes raked over his and Rain’s joined hands. He could see the tip of her tail twitching beneath the kitchen table, a sure sign that she was about to perform a train wreck.  They hadn’t been there for even five minutes.

Rainbow’s eyes drew down into slits and she stiffened, the casual smile she had been wearing when Cal had introduced her dropping off like a heavy slice of pizza from a flimsy paper plate.

I’m sorry?” Rain cocked her head slightly. “I don’t have two mothers Mrs. Thompson.”

Calvin watched his mom lay her cigarette in the plastic, yellow ashtray and reach for the bag of cheese puffs. Her tail curled smoothly around the scratched, rusty metal table leg, coppery scales shimmering in the smoke-laced sunbeam coming through the window above the sink. Rain wouldn’t see it.  She couldn’t.  Calvin had accepted long ago that spotting tails and horns was his own special way of being different.  He lived with it because he had no other option.  To the right of the bag was a ramekin filled with what looked and smelled like horseradish, the color a near-perfect match to his mother’s home-dyed hair. Not taking her eyes from Rain she moved her hand unerringly to the ramekin and dipped an orange puff, twisting it slightly to get a thick coating on the submerged end.

No? I thought names like Rainbow and Starshine were used only by lesbians.” The puff disappeared into her mouth and her narrow jaw closed in a perfect imitation of a cow chewing grass, side to side, grinding the food down to a pulp. The smell of the horseradish blossomed outward, mixing horribly with the smell of fresh tobacco smoke and stale ashtray.

I’m afraid not,” Rainbow said shortly. “My mother is Ojibwa and my dad is an engineer.” Her eyes followed the cheese puff, tracking it all the way into Mrs. Thompson’s mouth. “You know, the guy who drives the train?”  Rainbow didn’t back down from much.  It was one of things that Calvin really liked about her.  Still, he eyed the old green refrigerator that was humming grumpily next to the hallway and wished he were ten years old and could still hide behind it.

That’s too bad,” Mrs. Thompson said licking at the cheesy, orange dust on her fingers. “I would have loved to ask a few questions about the living habits of lesbians.” She reached for another cheese puff. “So what is oh-jib-wha? Some kind of indian?” Rain’s left eyebrow popped upward and she froze, her hand clamping tightly onto Calvin’s.

Native American!” she snapped. “You know what? I have something else I need to do today. I wish I could say it has been a pleasure but, it hasn’t.” Rainbow wrenched her hand from Calvin’s grasp and stormed out the kitchen door letting the screen slam shut behind her. Calvin stared after her, his mouth hanging open in shock.

Oh dear,” his mother said with a soft laugh. “You better go after her Cal, I think she may have misunderstood.”  Clipping his jaw closed Calvin looked at his mother in outrage.

Jesus Christ, mom! Why do you have to say every little thing that pops into your head?”

What?” Another well-coated cheese puff made its way toward the maw. “What are you talking about?” Crunch, crunch.

AAHHHHHhhhhh!” He threw up his hands in frustration and stalked out the door after Rain.

Rainbow was already at the bus stop by the time he caught up with her. She was standing like a statue with her head down, apparently trying to burn the sidewalk with her anger. Panting from the run he stopped in front her, searching for some kind of explanation to offer. He didn’t know what to say and actually expected to hear the worst from her. She was the first girl he had ever taken home to meet his mother. Not that he had a colorful history with women but more often than not had found himself pushed quickly into the friend zone. Rainbow had been a first in many ways for him and, judging by the look on her face just then, she could very well be the last. He said the only thing that came to mind.

Rain, I’m sorry.”

Rainbow lifted her head to look at him and Calvin was struck by the particular shade of green in her eyes, the result of merging so perfectly with the chestnut-like brown. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever felt weak in the knees before by hazel eyes but he certainly did. Her face was still flushed with anger, those beautiful eyes snapping off sparks. Long wisps of her black hair fluttered in the cool winter breeze, making him think of strands of cotton candy in the machine at the county fair. Calvin’s stomach tightened painfully in pre-grief. He missed her already.

Rainbow took a deep breath and the emotion visibly drained out of her, almost like a valve had been opened to release the enormous pressure within. Surprising him completely she reached for his hand and smiled.

Does she have a tail?”

Calvin felt his shoulders drop from their painful position around his ears and his stomach stopped eating itself as their fingers entwined. He exhaled, unaware he had been holding his breath.

The largest one you’ll never see,” he said and gave her a shaky smile. “She is the Gargoyle Queen.”

(Battle of the Goulash here)