Monologue #29 – Crystal

Several years ago I took in a basset/beagle mix named Crystal that was between three and five years old.  She had been born and raised in a kennel and for a long time had been the only female.  Her environment was roomy and warm with plenty of food and water, and lots of exercise. She was part of a group that had been used expressly for hunting purposes so her dog/human social skills were never really developed.  Crystal’s owners ran into some hard times and were forced to find homes for their dogs. Agreeing to take this shy, skittish, hard to love hound into my home turned out to be a decision that would forever alter how I viewed life and social structure.  

Getting her into my truck for transport home was challenging.  Unlike other dogs I’d had, she wanted nothing to do with ‘going for a ride’ which meant I had to bodily pick her up and put her into the cab.  Crystal had the body and legs of her father, very basset-esque, with the ears and shorter nose of her mother.  Picking her up was a lot like trying to heft a fifty pound sack of jello; the weight oozed to the bottom and she would try to slide away.  And I had completely underestimated those short, basset legs!  All four of them morphed into go-go-gadget arms with the strength and resilience of one hundred cats trying to stay out of the bath water.  By the time I was finally ready to drive away with her, she was hunched and trembling on the floor of the passenger side, completely withdrawn and unresponsive.  I was huffing in the driver’s seat with sweat trickling down my face and under my pits, and a couple shallow gouge marks on my arms from her nails.  I had won the first battle.  Feeling magnanimous I leaned over and gave her a reassuring pat on the head.  It was okay to be scared, I was there to support her.  We were in this together.  Everything would be fine.

Introducing her to the group at home was rudely done on my part.  I walked her into the house and took the leash off.  My old Spaniel came skidding into the kitchen and promptly smothered Crystal with his snuffling excitement.  Frodo, my small, gentle, gray tabby was the only one of the two felines that could associate with dogs without hating himself for it later.  He eventually adopted Crystal as his own.  That first day though was a lot like trying to get a fat slug out of a too small hole.  Crystal found a corner in my bedroom and curled up in a ball, refusing to have anything to do with anyone.

Once the novelty of the new addition wore off, life settled into something of a disturbing routine.  Wake up, let the dogs outside to run around and take care of business while I filled the food dishes.  Let the dogs back in to eat.  Get ready for work.  Mop up the puddle of dog piss on the dining room carpet that Crystal dumped there when she was done with her breakfast.  Go to work. Return from work.  Let the dogs out.  Mop up more piss in the dining room.  Let the dogs back in.  Eat dinner.  Watch television or whatever was my thing that night.  Maybe mop up more piss.  Go to bed.  Repeat.  In between all of that I petted and played with my animals, scratching behind their ears and rubbing their bellies, and gave them all treats and toys.  Through it all, Crystal refused to like anything. She didn’t approve of me petting her and looked like a flipped over beetle whenever I tried to rub her belly.  She would tighten every muscle in resistance and stretch her neck as far as it would go and stare, white eyed, into the abyss the whole time.  Feeling like I was violating her somehow, I eventually stopped trying.  Besides, being able to pet her was the lesser of the problems.

For some reason Crystal refused to alert me when she needed to pee.  Believing she was just socially awkward from living in a kennel where she had clear, immediate access to the outside when she needed to relieve herself,  I tried numerous things to get her to housebreak.  I tried letting her out more often.  I tried using the Spaniel to show her how to get excited about going outside.  I mopped with paper towels and took them, and her outside together to show her where the pee needed to be.  I even put a small bell on the door and tried to get her to hit it with her nose to signal her need.  The bell was the suggestion of my vet.  She thought Crystal’s shyness might be inhibiting her ability to just ‘ask’ to go out.  Giving her a bell to ring was a way for her to communicate without having to come to me directly.  It was also an effective way for the cats to exercise their musical talents.  Nothing worked.  Six months into this and I was pulling out my hair and losing my temper.  Dogs were a fact of my life.  My family had always had one.  I had never had a dog that wouldn’t housebreak.  My vet was out of suggestions and the carpet cleaning attachments for my vacuum were getting some serious game time.  

The thought that ran through my mind the most during this period was that Crystal was a product of kennel life.  She had never had to think about her needs before.  I tried very hard to understand what the difference must be like for her.  To go from doing as she pleased to being asked to, essentially perform a task, must be like me asking a Queen to get me a glass of water.  Oh… oh… OH! Lightning stuck and I felt my mind open.

The problem wasn’t about housebreaking at all, it was about Crystal being the only female in the kennel I had gotten her from.  She really was a Queen!  Being the alpha female of her previous home by default, she didn’t understand that she was no longer the boss.  She wasn’t peeing on my carpet because she needed to, she was doing it to mark her new territory… MY territory.  Oh crap.  Did this mean I needed to pee on my own floor?  The idea of fighting fire with fire was not something I could get behind.  There had to be another way.

I spent a couple days thinking things over and studying Crystal’s behavior very closely.  The plan that was forming in my mind was daunting and would undoubtedly leave emotional residue on everything so I wanted to be positive it needed to be done before I started.  She held herself above the pack, forcing them to leave her alone.  She never played with the other dog or even acknowledged the cats.  The only toy she had any interest in was a stuffed, blue frog which she took to her sleeping place and used for a pillow, never allowing it to be part of the toy box.  When she peed on the carpet it was always after she returned from being outside, as if she needed to re-establish herself in case someone had gotten the wrong idea while she was gone.  At feeding times she inhaled all of her food at once, a move that had an odd, mirroring effect on my gentle Spaniel.  I watched and I learned.

As I said earlier, my family had always had dogs.  As a kid I played with the family dog and took it for walks without ever thinking about how the dog might have felt about me.  A domestic dog, raised among people was just another member of the family.  A domestic dog raised among other dogs, away from people was a different story altogether.  Dogs like that don’t speak people.  They never learned our language.  In order to get my point across to Crystal I needed to open a line of communication that she would understand. Since she didn’t speak my language, I had to speak hers.

The day I changed everything was a Friday.  I had the whole weekend to be front and center in Crystal’s face.  When I woke up I let the dogs out as usual, but only filled one dish with food, leaving Crystal’s empty on the floor.  When I let them back inside I stood guard over my Spaniel, growling at Crystal to keep her away while he ate.  When everyone, including myself, had finished their meals I fed Crystal.  Later, during a playtime when I saw her slinking away to the bedroom, I stalked in there, pushed her off the bed I had given her and sat on it myself with my hand firmly and visibly holding down the blue frog.  The confusion on her face as she processed what she was seeing was heartbreaking.  Finally she went into the bathroom and laid down on the small rug by the tub.  I followed her and pushed her off, then sat on it myself, growling and showing my teeth the whole time.

I spent the entire weekend showing preference to the other animals and made clear, unarguable claims to everything she touched.  The final straw was the computer room.  I spent a lot of time in there.  My Spaniel and Frodo would usually come and hang out with me while I worked on things or played games.  Curious about the attraction Crystal had taken to laying in the hallway just outside the door, out of sight, but near enough that she could keep an eye on things.  The tags on her collar made a soft chiming sound whenever she moved around so I could tell when she was approaching.  I chased her away from the door, barking and growling like an idiot.  She fled to the bedroom.  After a few minutes the Spaniel returned and I went back to what I was doing.  Crystal came slinking back down the hall.  I chased her away again.  She didn’t try a third time.

By Sunday night I was emotionally exhausted and my throat was raw from all the growling.  I was doing some laundry and folding things on the couch while I watched television.  Taking a break I went to the kitchen and made myself a sandwich.  When I returned to the couch with my plate the Spaniel promptly plunked himself at my feet and stared excitedly at me while I chewed.  From the corner of my eye I caught sight of Crystal moving carefully through the kitchen.  She stopped at the doorway and looked at me with my food, and the Spaniel sitting there waiting for some.  She dropped her head and walked into the bedroom without another glance.  She had accepted her place.  I set my sandwich down and let my tears fall.  The war was over.

I stopped being a jerk to her, but I also never allowed the chain of command to be broken.  She always had a very clear picture of where she was on the pole of authority. The massive effort it took to get my point across has never left me.  Crystal never again peed on my floor and even started being a little social.  I let her have her frog back and she took it everywhere.  When it became too worn I replaced it with a similar model in green.  She accepted it without argument and took it to her bed.  Frodo started sleeping with her.  I know she liked him; they were secret friends.  Eventually I even managed to get her to stop being hysterical every time I needed to put her in the truck.  I can’t say she came to enjoy the rides, but she did get enough of a grip to be able to sit on the seat and look out the windows without shaking herself apart.  My Spaniel passed away during the next year which moved Crystal up the chain.  I was alerted to her knowledge of this fact when I heard her tags chiming outside the computer room.  She had given the hallway a wide berth since our restructuring.  With the Spaniel gone, it was her right to take his place.  She looked positively terrified when I came out of the room, but she held her ground.  I patted her on the head and scratched her ears then walked back into the room without further comment.  She laid down in the hall and watched things.

Eventually I decided to move to Milwaukee and into an apartment.  I wasn’t sure about how this would work out for Crystal and was discussing it with my mother.  To my surprise, mom felt very strongly that she should keep my dog.  She knew the struggle Crystal and I had been through together and understood the way things needed to be for her.  She was also a familiar person to Crystal.  Surprised by this revelation, I thought it over.  Being shy and skittish, my little ba/gel was extremely anti-social with strangers. Anytime I had company she would pace around and stare sullenly at everyone from a distance, never allowing anyone to actually befriend her or give her a pat.  It was commonplace to see her snatch up her frog and hide in the bedroom until the company left.  She also barked at leaves and wind.  My garage motion light would flash on every so often on stormy nights and Crystal would lose her mind sounding an alert.  Mom had worked hard at getting to know Crystal and really felt it would be better for everyone if she didn’t make the move to the city with me.  There was also the hinted-at-fact that my mom would be alone once I was gone.  I agreed to mom’s request and let her become Crystal’s keeper.

On moving day I took Crystal and her belongings to mom’s house and got everything set up.  The coup de grace was putting the stuffed frog on her bed.  Crystal looked at me in shock and began to tremble.  She knew I was leaving her.  I dropped to my knees and hugged her rigid body, petting her and rubbing her ears while my tears fell on her head.  Despite our stormy beginnings we had formed a tight and unusual bond.  I had no happy memories of playing catch with her or chasing each other around in the yard.  My happy memories were the ones where I was able to pet her for the first time and see that she was okay with it; the first time she actually came to me and rested her head on my knee; the first time she took a treat directly from my hand; and discovering that the reason she had become less grumpy about me trimming her nails was because of the treat she got when it was over.  She had never managed to become what I would call a family pet, but she had become my dog and I was her person.  Leaving her felt awful.  Frodo cried and looked for her for months, searching all the corners of our Milwaukee apartment.

Over the next five years my mother regaled me with stories of Crystal and her awkward social graces.  She kept me updated on her health issues as she aged and asked my thoughts on treatments and things.  When Crystal misplaced her frog my mother was beside herself with concern.  My ba/gel became depressed and barely budged from her bed for days.  Mom searched everywhere.  Eventually she thought to pull the couch away from the wall and discovered the frog wedged under one end.  According to mom, Crystal saw the frog and came flying off her bed, her whole body wiggling and tail whipping behind.  Mom said it was the most genuine excitement she had ever seen in her.

The day came when mom called and said she thought Crystal was reaching the end.  We guessed her age to be close to fifteen years at that point.  She had developed dietary issues and arthritis as well as having random growths sprout up that had to be removed.  Her muzzle was completely white.  Storms rarely bothered her anymore.  Mom said she would come home from work and actually be fully inside the house before Crystal would open her eyes and look up, bleary and tired.  It took a bit, but I came to understand that mom wanted me to tell her it was okay to let Crystal go.

Three years have gone by since Crystal left and I still have strong feelings about her.  She left a huge mark on my mother and me.  We often talk about her strange behaviors and share some laughs over her and the frog.  I sometimes wonder if she had any feelings about her life with us?  I’m sure she missed her kennel mates for a while.  Hopefully my mixed pack of critters made her feel less out of place.  Considering how well she took to singular life with my mother, I think she may have been less territorial had she not had to face a group in the beginning. She is truly missed and well remembered.

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Another Tender Tale

I sat staring into the Styrofoam box, horror and suspicion sweeping over me. Beside me, innocently shoveling boneless, barbecue wings down her smooth, slender throat as if nothing was wrong, sat my wife in all her selfish glory.  Her eyes were fixed on the television, one of three that we could see from our table, where the latest Packer game was being picked apart by sports aficionados past their prime.  I narrowed my eyes at her.  She hated football.  She was only watching now because she knew I was going to find out the truth.  Shoving my box of chicken away from me I turned to her in disgust.

“You broke up with the cashier, didn’t you?”  My voice was just a bit too loud for a public restaurant, even a wing joint.  The couple by the front window became suspiciously still, the husband turning to look while his wife stared down at their food.  I didn’t bother to make eye contact.  What would I do, smile and wave?

Popping the last bite of a wing into her guilty mouth she reached for another, barely turning her head to face me.

“What are you talking about?”

I pointed at the box of tenders then looked at her again with my eyebrows cranked all the way up my forehead, my expression as hugely exaggerated as her innocence.

“There’s only four tenders in there.”  I crossed my arms and waited for an explanation.

“How many did you order?”

“Four!”

Looking at me as if I was mentally dysfunctional she reached out to pat my arm, her face a portrait of sympathy.

“That’s what four means, honey.”

“No!  Four does not mean four and you know it!”  I always got an extra tender no matter what amount I ordered.  She knew it too. She couldn’t fool me. I knew she’d been cozying up to that cashier. I always got the extra tender as an effort to placate me while they made googly eyes at each other.  I glowered and leaned in close so my breath could repel her like kryptonite.  “Don’t play coy with me,” I hissed.  “Did you two have a falling out?”  I scrambled my brains to come up with something biting.  “A saucy argument, perhaps?”  I cringed just a bit at my own word choice there.  Maybe I should have left it at a falling out.

“Jesus honey, what did you eat before we came here?”  She fanned the air between us.  “Roadkill?”

I spared a thought for the cold, two day old, Chinese takeout I had gulped down while she was getting ready; chicken and garlic, with garlic and extra MSG.  Close enough, I thought, and gave her a nod.

“That doesn’t change your guilt.”  I felt my point was obvious.  “You need to make up with him.”

“Make up with who?”

She might be able to pull the wool over his eyes but, I was married to her.  I knew the truth!

“You know own exactly what I’m talking about.  You fix this and quick.”  I pointed with my chin at the box of tenders congealing in front of me.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!”  She turned away and picked up another wing.  “You have a seriously abnormal imagination, honey.”

“Don’t act like this is nothing,” I warned, dragging the box toward me again.  “This is something.”  I held up a single piece of chicken between my thumb and forefinger and shook it at her.  “This is small, overcooked and completely lacking in effort.”  My wife studied it for second, her green eyes sharpening to icy points.  Her smile became feral.

“You’re right, honey.  I’ll fix this.”  She turned back to her wings.  “Right after I give my phone number to the new cashier.”

I stared at her.

“What new cashier?”

“You didn’t see the guy who took our order?”

I shook my head like an idiot and tried to see past the soda machine, around the corner to the front counter.

“You gave him your number?”  I was astounded.

“Not yet but we haven’t finished eating.  There’s still time.”  She smiled.

“What happened to the other guy?”

My wife shrugged and kept chewing.  I watched the two little sticks she put into her hair to keep it rolled up and thought they looked a lot like chop sticks.

“Baby, be serious for a minute.  What happened to him?”

She paused between bites and stared into my box of untouched, lemon pepper tenders.

“Eat up honey, before he gets cold.”

 

(The original Tender Tale is here)

A Mad Dash To The End

It is November 22, I still have 17k words to go and my mother is coming to visit on the 28th and will stay until the 30th.  I really need to hustle and get this finished, at least word-count-wise before that time.  Three days ago I was pecking out one word at a time, chewing my nails off and actively avoiding NaNoWriMo by playing countless games of Bejeweled Blitz while my mind struggled over plot issues and the fact that I had nothing scheduled for this blog.   I like to keep to a schedule as much as possible and when I am not able to do that I tend to get agitated and my thinking can break down.  I was definitely floundering.

My wife peers at my computer screen and asks how things are going?  She can see I’m playing Bejeweled.  I state my plot problems and the impending doom of my word count while I spin pretty, colored gems and try to get Blazing Speed going, and she says… “Why don’t you just write the ending?”

Why didn’t I think of that?

So here I am, tearing along again with a pot of coffee at hand and Bejeweled open on a tab in the back instead of the front.  My carefully thought out characters are dying one by one, the way I intended and I’m feeling like a vengeful God about it.  I have to admit, there are some twists I hadn’t actually meant to have but now that they are there I am rather impressed by them.  Hopefully the finished product will be as smooth as I want it to be.  Once I get to 50k, finished or not I will post a few more excerpts for everyone.

Cheers Wrimos and happy writing!

Smashing Pumpkins

Caroline stared blankly at the creased and grubby sheet of paper Jeffrey was pressing into her hand.  A thick strand of brown hair that seemed to have just begun to streak with silver, dropped free of her loosely coiled bun and landed limply against her cheek.  Her hand, still well fleshed but running rampant with small lines closed reflexively on the cold page.  Even without her glasses she had spotted it from the kitchen window while watching for her grandson to get home from school.  He had leapt from the bus like it was any other day but the paper, this paper, was bow-tied tightly in his fist as he raced for the house, smiling over the last words he had exchanged with his friends.  Now she could feel his eyes glued to her face.  Without looking she knew his expression was becoming alarmed, his brown eyes widening and his small, full lipped mouth beginning to sag and tremble.  She needed to pull herself together.  She needed to paste a look on her face that would ease his sudden worry.  Feeling like her skin was made of silicone she pushed her mouth into a smile and, dropping the paper on the counter reached to ruffle his shaggy, slightly sweaty, brown hair with hands that could have been carved from plastic.

“How was school baby?”

“Gramma?  Are you sick?”  With his red hoodie zipped all the way up and the hood barely pushed back Jeffrey’s face looked pale and anxious, framed by tufts of his messed hair.  For just a moment Caroline had the impression that his damp locks formed a pair of horns on his young head and her heart thumped painfully inside her chest.  Immediately she shoved the absurd idea out her mind.  Jeffrey was a normal five year old.  He was a good boy.  There was nothing to worry about.  Reaching out again she smoothed his hair down.

“I’m fine sweetheart.  How was your day?”  Pulling out one of the brown, low backed wooden chairs from the counter she leaned down to lift him, the weight making her back tighten harshly.  Lift with your legs, she thought.  Either he was growing fast or she was losing her strength.  Both thoughts brought sadness into her chest, a feeling that never seemed far away these days.  As he settled into the chair and tried to help her undo his jacket his former concern for her slipped from his mind and he began to prattle about all the things that had happened at school.  Making appropriate sounds of encouragement she hung his jacket on the wooden coat tree by the entrance to the great room, nearly stubbing her toe on the heavy, brown, resin cow she used to fortify the wobbly base and moved into the kitchen to get his sandwich and juice from the refrigerator.  Sliding the plate and drink container across the smooth, well scrubbed counter her eyes drifted toward the paper.  Jeffrey grabbed the sandwich and took a  large bite, never ceasing his now excited chatter.  When the word jack-o-lantern passed his lips followed by a coarsely chewed chunk of tuna fish sandwich Caroline felt her blood drain down her body and pool in her feet.  She pressed both hands flat on the counter to steady herself, and a very bad word wriggled free of her mouth.  Jeffrey froze in mid chew, tuna and bread openly exposed inside his jaws as his eyes locked onto her face, a regretful parody of the look his mother had given her countless times as she had grown up.  Heartbreak punched her in the stomach as she tried to wave away his worry along with the family resemblance.

“I’m sorry Jeffrey.  I shouldn’t say those words.”

“Are you sick gramma?”  Worry spread over his face again as he set down the rest of his sandwich and slumped in his chair.  “Did I do something?”  Caroline took a deep breath and tried to rally herself again.

“Oh no, baby.  You are just fine.”  With a slow exhale she picked up the paper and began to smooth it against the counter, noting the small, nearly perfect fingerprint of dirt Jeffrey had left near the top, right after the formal greeting: Dear Parent or Legal Guardian.  She might as well face the facts, her grandson was going to have a jack-o-lantern in the contest this year whether she read the paper or not.  Trying to pretend otherwise was just going to worry them both.  “I guess we need to go shopping for a pumpkin, huh kiddo?”  Tears prickled behind her eyes as happiness spread across his face.  Caroline lowered her face to stare at the print on the page, hiding her eyes from her grandson.  This paper was actually the second notice, the first one having arrived in the mailbox just after the new year began.  That one had been official, neatly arranged in a full sized envelope a quarter inch thick with all the rules and addendums for this years contest.  She had felt just as sick then, reading through each page while Jeffrey slept unknowing in his room.  To him it would just be a contest, something fun.  The reality of it wouldn’t shake his stability for a few years yet.  This paper today was the catalyst, the blatant reminder that the annual countdown was nearly over and that she had participated simply by having custody of Jeffrey.  She had forty-five days and then her life might change forever, again.

Victory and shame battled in her chest as she felt an alarming amount of gratitude for the fact that her daughter was not able to experience this moment.  Were she alive they would be hugging each other fiercely right now, trying to support each other and vowing they would make it through the next eight years together.  Jeffrey was a good boy.  He would be fine.  Caroline had raised her daughter to responsible adulthood, she would do the same with her grandson.  The jack-o-lanterns were not going to change that.  Her family would thrive.

“Katie says her grandpa has a pumpkin patch in his backyard.  She says he grows all their pumpkins every year.”  Jeffrey’s voice rose with hope.  “Gramma, can we grow pumpkins next year?  Can we grow a patch just for us?”  Pressing her eyes tightly closed Caroline tried to stem the horror that blossomed in her stomach.  He just doesn’t understand yet, she told herself.  Feeling hateful she wondered if Katie’s grandfather poured over the legalese of the Jack-o-lantern document looking for loopholes while he weeded his pumpkin patch?  Maybe he used it for mulch.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jeffrey.”  Forcing her voice to stay steady she raised her head and gave him a smile.  “Pumpkins take up a lot of room.  Our yard is too small for them.”  Too small to grow them to the required size, she thought bitterly.  And what would we do with the extra ones?  Eat them?  Her stomach rebelled at the idea and she turned instinctively toward the sink, pressing a hand to her mouth to quell the queasiness.  Pumpkin pie.  Pumpkin bread.  Pumpkin roll.  Pumpkin cookies and cupcakes.  A litany of foods ran through her mind and nausea pushed upward.  Caroline held onto the edge of the sink with both hands as her stomach heaved and her hair bun gave up the battle, her heavy, brown tresses falling with a thump of finality into the stainless steel basin.  The only words she had read on the paper were the last ones: Failure to comply with any of the above requirements will result in immediate forfeiture of the contest and your child will be surrendered for disposal.  Behind her Jeffrey sniffled.

Battle of the Goulash

The corn chips were innocent, simply a bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time. Calvin stood at the outer edge of the serving window, a long, rectangular cut-away and stared curiously into the church kitchen, his eyes flicking between his mother and Rain’s as they stared each other down in front of a pot of bubbling pasta, a bag of corn chips unopened on the counter between them.

“It’s a stand-off,” Rainbow said softly, her voice a beacon inside the racket of the church’s Summer Luncheon, the big event held at the culmination of Vacation Bible School week. The Gargoyle Queen had volunteered to make a pot of goulash for the luncheon and, out of nowhere, the Cave Troll had volunteered to help. Calvin and Rain had looked at each other in horror, the idea of their mothers working together at anything giving them both daytime nightmares. Calvin risked a glance at her, a devious grin squirming its way out of the corner of his mouth.

“Want to bet on who will win?”

Rainbow chuckled and reached for her pocket.

“I’ve got five dollars on the Cave Troll.”

“Of course you do,” Calvin snorted. “You actually like your mom.” He reached for his own pocket and thumbed a bill out of his money clip. “I guess that means I’ll have to bet on the Queen or it won’t be any fun.” Rainbow snatched the money from his hand and shoved it into her opposite pocket with her own bill, her authority in the matter very clear.

“Okay, the bet is whether or not the corn chips will make it into the pot.”  She raised a finger of importance here, punctuating her next words with it. “Declaring it the Cave Troll’s very own Texas Style Skillet or…” Rain opened her eyes wide, innocence oozing out. “That bottle of sweet barbecue sauce your mom is hiding in her purse goes in and it is called Gargoyle Goulash.” Calvin’s mouth rounded into a surprised O.

“How can you possibly know about the barbecue sauce?”

“You don’t worry about that.” Rainbow’s eyes skirted away from him. Calvin narrowed his own in suspicion. “It’s not important right now.”

“I have doubts,” Cal whispered.

“Shhhh, let’s see who will win this?” Rain fixed her eyes on the pair in the kitchen. Calvin followed suit, anticipation tightening his spine. The winner didn’t really matter, it was all about the drama. He smiled and waited.

* * * * *

“I can manage this just fine,” Margaret Thompson purred. “I’ve been making goulash for the church for more years than I can count.” She fixed Madison Starshine with a slightly haughty look. Her horseradish colored hair looked very much like a helmet in the harsh kitchen lights. “As a visitor you shouldn’t worry yourself with this stuff. Go enjoy the luncheon.” Margaret jerked her head toward the serving window with its open view of the rows of paper-covered banquet tables waiting patiently for the dinning to begin. Her subtle accent on the word visitor made it clear that she considered Madison an outsider.

“Oh pffft,” Madison, red-framed glasses perched high on the bridge of her nose, waved a hand at Margaret, her red and black, floral patterned sleeve drawing the eye like a stray bonfire flame. “No need to worry about me. I can find my way around. Take a break dear. I can get this finished up in no time. You go sit with the kids and rest.” Maddy’s tactical wave brought her close to the bag of corn chips. Margaret wasn’t having it though. Quick as a mongoose she snatched the chips from the counter top and turned to open the cupboard that held the church’s serving bowls.

“Here, let me set these out for you. I’m sure the children will love them.” Turning back to the counter with her faded green plastic bowl Margaret nearly collided with Madison who had stepped forward to save her chips.

“No, no, those are for the skillet.” Maddy grabbed protectively at the bag, managing to lock her pincer like grasp on the top. She pulled. Meg pulled back gently, demonstrating the strength of her own grip and letting her four inch height advantage speak for itself.

“What skillet?” Margaret looked suspiciously the small red-haired woman.

“The Texas Style Skillet.” Madison pointed with her chin at the pasta on the stove and the cooling fry pan of hamburger beside it. She gave a strong yank and the bag came flying at her as Margaret released it abruptly. Slightly off balance now she grabbed for the counter to steady herself, a deep flush rising in her face.

“Whoa there! Steady now.” Mr Tuuts, a church regular and notorious elderly bachelor came bustling through the back door of the kitchen just in time to scoop Madison up by the elbow. He stood smiling into her face, his droopy gray mustache quivering excitedly on his upper lip while exhaling fresh cigarette breath into her face. Madison struggled to keep herself from falling, her eyes darting to Margaret in alarm. Meg reached for the corn chips again, her lips curling into a seuss-like smile of glee. Maddy was using her forearm to brace herself against the ancient, Formica counter top, despite Mr. Tuuts grip on her arm, which left her grasp weakened. Meg plucked the bag easily from her grasp and, popping it open, upended it into the green bowl and shoved it out toward the edge of the serving window. Mr. Tuuts pulled firmly on Maddy’s elbow, forcing her to balance herself or wind up pressed against his boxy chest. “Got it?”

“Yes, yes.” Meg pressed forward and managed to nudge a surprised Maddy away from the stove. “You go sit down now. Mr. Tuuts is quite an interesting fellow to talk with. I’m sure you two will have lots of things in common.” The pasta was boiling with ferocity now. Meg turned the burner dial off and, using her backside to make more space for herself shoved Maddy further away. She opened the drawer where the hot mitts were kept. “Mr. Tuuts, why don’t you tell Madsion about getting lost in the woods when you were looking for the source of the mysterious lights?”

“Oooo, that’s a great idea!” The mustache increased its quivering rate. “I never found the ultimate source but I had an experience I’ll never forget.” Maddy glanced helplessly at the back of Meg’s head as Mr. Tuuts led her out of the kitchen door toward the nearest banquet table. The smell of cooked pasta followed her as Meg emptied the boiling pot into the colander in the sink.

* * * * *

Sitting beside Rain, his Styrofoam plate nearly licked clean, Calvin munched corn chips and smiled. Rain pushed her plate away with an empty expression. Calvin could see the bits of uneaten, sweet goulash hidden beneath pieces of ice burg lettuce from the salad bowl. Children of varying ages jostled around, squealing and laughing.

“I believe you have something of mine,” he whispered. Rainbow nodded in defeat and dug the two five dollar bills out of her pocket.

“Just to be clear,” she said, holding the bills away from him. “The Gargoyle Queen cheated. She nearly killed my mother with that letting-go-of-the-bag stunt.”

“I know,” Calving chuckled. “It would have been awful if your new dad hadn’t showed up and saved her.”

“Stop that! I have a dad and you know it.” Rainbow’s dark eyes glowered at him.

“Not for long,” he joked. “Mr. Tuuts is sweeping the Cave Troll off her feet.” He pointed with his head at the pair seated together at the end of a mostly empty banquet table. Madsion’s face was blank and shell-shocked, the look of someone who has given up and simply trying to survive. Mr. Tuuts, chest expanded importantly, pressed his hands down along his tweed vest for the hundredth time as he talked. “Pretty soon you’ll be a latch-key adult too.”

“Go to hell!” Rain hissed.

The sound of judgmental breathing right behind them brought Calvin’s laughter to a halt. He turned his head to see his mother standing over him, her face pursed in annoyance.

“Swearing in church,” she admonished. “And gambling too I see.” She reached out and plucked the two bills from Rain’s hand and shoved them into the pocket of her sweater. “I believe these are mine,” she stated. “I am, after all, the winner.” Calvin’s face drooped in surprise. Margaret smiled garishly at him.“Be careful where you place your bets children, that open serving window has a neat habit of amplifying sound.” She placed a hand on Rain’s shoulder and gave her an inquiring look. “I’m curious though, how did you know about the bottle of barbecue sauce?” Rainbow met her eyes and smirked.

“Give me my five dollars back and I’ll tell you.” Margaret pursed her lips and shook her head very slightly.

“Shifty,” she commented. “Cal, I think I’m starting to like this girl.” She laid a hand on Rainbow’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

 

(The Gargoyle Queen 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)