SHADOWS AND SMOKE
Short story and artwork
Wendy Holloway gave the inside window a shove upward, then the storm window. Frigid air rushed in on a gusty February wind. A dozen or so pink Post-It notes that were stuck to her PC flapped like flags, and a bobblehead writer figure (wearing glasses, with a pen in one hand and a coffee cup in the other, clad in a nightgown that said “I ♥ Stephen King” on the front--what else could she be, but a writer?) fell off of a stack of paperbacks and onto the floor.
Wendy pounded on the wall.
“Do you EVER stop smoking, you goddamn nicotine junkie?! I can't breathe in here!”
From the other side of the wall, a muffled, “Bitch.”
Her breathing was raspy and she was lightheaded. Both fists were clenched at her sides and her brown eyes burned hotter than the tip of her neighbor's cigarette.
Until a thought crossed her mind.
And she smiled.
Some people just enjoy messing with your life.
They don't merely step over the line, but leap over with size twelve, dogshit-covered boots and land loud and hard on your dreams, announcing to the world that they truly don't give a rosy rat's ass about you, or your needs, or your feelings.
Neighbor Hoyt Bixby was one of those people.
Wendy Holloway, however, was no creampuff. And she was not without resources. Her extended family was, shall we say, unique.
Foremost in her mind at this moment was her wise and wonderfully snarky great-grandaunt, T'antie Iraska. Madam Iraska's yearly birthday candles were fast approaching triple digits, she had a thick accent few outsiders could understand and even fewer could place ethnicity-wise, and when she rattled bones in a cup and sprinkled bat's feet and gerbil eyes into a cauldron of greenish, smelly goo, bad things could happen to someone. Really bad things. Not the traditional you're fired, your mother was hit by a bus, you have a dreaded disease bad. More like, Dude, your johnson just fell off bad.
Obviously, bringing her T'antie Iraska into this situation was not a decision to be made lightly. “This is serious shit,” she told herself. “Seriously. Serious. Shit.”
But enough was enough.
The smoke's effect on her breathing put it at the top of the list of things Bixby did to piss her off and intrude upon her life, but it was a very long list.
All she wanted was some peace. Peace.
Okay, so she might never become the next Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Kathy Reichs, or Octavia Butler. She fluctuated between genres, she Photoshopped her own book covers, and so far, her three self-pubbed books had sold a total of 214 paperback copies averaging $4.99, and 804 99¢ ebooks, over a two year period. But, as she responded to anyone who sneered at those numbers, “How many books have you sold?”
How optimistic she'd been on the morning she moved in here; a lazy Saturday with boxes piled everywhere, her curly brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, no make-up on, purple glitter-framed glasses perched on her nose, shuffling around in Jack Skellington slippers and setting up the computer so she could get started immediately.
That was before she met next-door-neighbor Bixby. He was away for almost a week. Long enough for her to get settled in, empty many mugs of coffee, hurl lots of words into the keyboard, and feel, well, so damn happy.
Then Bixby returned from wherever he'd been, and her cuddly little writer world changed.
The main problem? They lived in cheaply-built, attached row homes, where everything was up-close-and-personal. The block was made up of twenty-five conjoined houses on each side of the street, every one of them with walls so paper-thin, they might as well not be there. If your neighbor liked Beyonce, or Frank Sinatra, or Family Feud, you knew it. If you liked to cook with lots of paprika, they knew it. When all was quiet, you could hear voices spoken in a normal tone. If you were...um, vocal...during sex, your next-door neighbor didn't need to download porn.
It was a new experience for Wendy.
She'd gone from a childhood in a lovely split-level suburban home, to a college dorm, to a chic loft in an artsy, big city neighborhood. Nice life if you can get it, but even with two jobs—full time at Starbucks, and writing a column for a very trendy newspaper with a loyal but miniscule readership—she barely paid the bills.
Eventually, the newspaper went under and she bounced around to several apartments still out of her price range, then ended up here, in a working-class neighborhood surrounded by poverty within two or three blocks in any direction. Yet, she liked the area. The residents were a mixture of homegrown and immigrants, most were friendly and even helpful, and the lack of pretentiousness was refreshing. If there was no quaint shop that sold artisan breads down the block, well, money was too tight to afford that sort of thing anyway.
The neighborhood's best feature? It was a mere twenty minute drive from her beloved T'antie Iraska's house.
Wendy's new residence was not the writer's nest she'd pictured before she moved in and plunked down two months rent in advance, plus a hefty security deposit, true. But she was here, and the positives outnumbered the negatives. Or they would, if not for Bixby.
* * *
The wisp of smoke stretched forward, then curled back, like a beckoning finger. Eventually it flattened out like a horizon and drifted in several directions: toward the kitchen doorway, the bookshelves full of thrift store paperbacks and yard sale knickknacks, and the sunlight-deprived potted plant over in the far corner.
The smoke's point of origin dangled from between dry, cracked lips and waggled up and down as Hoyt Bixby stood by the wall between the two houses. By that long, wide, vertical crack in the plaster, to be precise. With each exhale, he blew smoke into the opening and grinned like a demented demon in a low-budget horror flick.
But it didn't take long for the entertainment value to fade, and he went back to crouching in front of his stuttering VCR (yes, there are still a few left in existence), which had conked out in the middle of a movie.
He ran a hand through his hair, which was more or less salt-and-pepper, curling down over his collar and combed back on top. His face looked weathered, even though the closest he ever got to spending time outdoors was watching Animal Planet. His blue-grey eyes were sharp--he could catch the license plate of a hip hip-blasting car almost a block away, and would write it down in his little “I'll Get You, Douchebag” spiral notebook. Yet the crow's feet on either side of those accusing eyes were more like deep crevices, as were the dimples that had attracted women way back when. He used to get pretty much anything he wanted, with merely a smile and a wink, but how many years (or decades) ago was that? No one knew for sure. He might be a pitifully beat-up forty-five. Or maybe he looked damn good for seventy. He never spoke about personal things to anyone, and no one cared enough to ask.
Hoyt turned the VCR off, then on again, and slammed his fist on that perfect spot right over the PAUSE button. The device sprang to life and a bright image appeared on the TV screen above it.
“About time, you stupid hunk of shit,” he said, laughing. The battle of wills he had with the 20-year-old videotape player was a daily thing, had been for years, and he liked familiarity. It made him feel connected to his past. There were too many new things in the world nowadays, coming at you all at once.
He preferred his memories of the good ol' days, back when he had lots of bucks from good-paying construction jobs. At least, for the two or three weeks, or sometimes miraculously four, before he'd get himself fired for punching out some condescending asshole of a supervisor, or stealing some tools, or not showing up because he was still drunk and snoring beside some hooker in Atlantic City after a long weekend.
He took a long draw on his cigarette, coughed good and hard, spat a loogie into the trash can four feet away, and smiled with pride. Perfect aim. Damn straight. He hadn't missed that can in all the years he'd lived here.
Now that the VCR was working again, he could finish watching the John Wayne western, McClintock! Nothing cheered him up quite as much as that scene near the end where The Duke spanks his uppity wife in front of the whole town. Hoyt always laughed his ass off.
There were days (and today was turning into one of them) when he fantasized about doing that and more to Ms. BigBoob WallPounder. Man, I'd love to pound her, he sometimes thought to himself, and laughed a dirty laugh.
* * *
“Do you have it, my neesha?”
“Sure, T'antie, right here.” Wendy slipped the backpack off and unzipped it. The bright yellow Uncle Nick's Food Mart bag crinkled loudly as she pulled it out and sat it on a table. The room was dim, with a few wall lights that looked like they belonged in a different century and some feeble sunlight slanting in through an amber window. Two walls had shelves floor-to-ceiling, full of dark glass bottles, small stands of what looked like oddly-shaped test tubes, metal boxes of all shapes and sizes covered with mysterious words written in tiny script, and ornately-carved wooden containers. The ones on the higher levels were more than a little dusty. Madam Iraska was barely four-and-a-half-feet tall, and that was as far as she and her stepladder could reach with a feather duster. That was as high-tech as she cared to get, even if Wendy had given her a DustBuster a while back. She'd smiled and was sweetly gracious, but later, one try was all it took. Damn thing sounded like a tank.
Wendy withdrew several items from the bag.
“He'll certainly never miss these. There were piles of them beside his overflowing trash can,” she said of the two beer cans, three cigarette butts, and a broken glass that reeked of cheap wine. “I'm sure his slobber is on there.”
“I don't do DNA analysis, child. This isn't CSI. Do I look like Marg Helgenberger to you? Don't answer that.” There was a sly smile amid all those wrinkles. “These objects matter because they are him, yes? They are the essence of who he is?”
“Oh, for damn sure,” Wendy replied.
“Then, that is good. They will do. Now, go, before you're late for work. And grab a nice big chunk of my coffee cake on your way out.” The old woman smiled. Her small, perfectly even teeth (each of them, her very own) made Wendy a little bit envious, as they always did, which made her slide her tongue over that slight overbite of hers, as she always did, and chuckle to herself as she made her way to the kitchen. Then, out the back door, with a huge, plastic-wrapped piece of the tastiest coffee cake on this or any other planet.
* * *
It was a fairly typical winter day, much like one in any deteriorating inner city neighborhood. Quiet, since the kids were in school. Mothers hurried along with strollers, their babies and toddlers bundled up against the cold.
On some corners, old heads who hadn't been employed since the first George Bush was President sat outside a bar or stop-and-go, swigging from a bottle or can, or smoking a joint.
In the block-long park, teens and twenty-somethings ran up and down a basketball court, battling a team of thirty-somethings (and one who'd reached the ripe old age of forty) who were trying to prove they still “had” it.
The playground in the middle of the park was empty. The swings looked lonely, and the brand-new, donated treehouse-like structure with a slide on each end, all sorts of things to climb on, and even a rope bridge, was already covered with graffiti. The ground beneath it had broken glass and a few crushed beer cans.
But the small, community-run library a mere fifty feet away from the playground had a fresh coat of paint complete with drawings of dancing books with happy cartoon faces, and there were flowers planted by the door. No one trashed it. The local gang leader had put out the word. He loved books, and had survived a brutal childhood by losing himself in the pages of classics that transported him to faraway countries and distant planets and even allowed him to feel like part of a family marooned on a deserted island. If the races of the characters didn't match his, he merely ignored it, and saw them in his head the way he wanted to see them. Fiction can work that way. He wanted kids up and down these streets to have access to the same escape, so he donated books (his old favorites, plus newer titles much more culturally diverse) to the little library, and each summer gave new bikes and other prizes to local children for Most Books Read. Even drug lords have their virtues.
This scene was witnessed each day by a surprisingly large number of squirrels who lived there among the huge old trees and newer saplings, looking down from the branches and chattering. Between that and the birds singing along with them, this could be quite a lovely little place. In the daytime. Anyone venturing here at night, of course, was either a criminal or suicidal.
* * *
Wendy sat at her keyboard. The window was open an inch or so, enough to let in some fresh air without making the room feel like the Arctic. Hoyt Bixby's cigarette smoke had made it necessary again. Out back, she heard him talking to the squirrel he treated so much better than he did human beings. Every morning, the creature scampered along the cable wire, then down onto the chain link backyard fence, where Hoyt hand-fed it nuts.
“Hey, Rocky, here ya go, sweetie. Almonds today. Your favorite.”
“Yeah, that's brilliant,” Wendy muttered to herself. “Your recycle bin is full of cheap generic food containers for you, but you buy almonds instead of peanuts for basically a rat with a fuzzy tail. If you think it loves you back, guess again, numb nuts.”
But that did give her yet another plot idea for the short story she was writing. Hoyt had recently become the main character, although his name in it was Charlie Glutz. She had many plans for ol' Charlie; none of them, fun. Well, not for him. Or for Hoyt.
Two nights ago, she'd set things in motion by taking part in The Ritual. In the dead of night, she and her T'antie Iraska stood at a round, stone table in the center of a room lit only by a couple dozen or so peculiar-smelling candles that made Wendy dizzy and creeped-out and comforted, all at the same time. The irony of deliberately exposing herself to smoke that nearly choked her was not lost on her, but maybe that was part of it, as well. It wasn't the only sacrifice she made.
Her great-grandaunt had made it clear that Wendy's short stories were the key; that her power was in her words. So, into the witchy melting pot went two items near and dear to her heart: her favorite click-style ballpoint pen, which she'd used for her writing since college, plus her beloved little fuzzy-haired troll pencil cap, which had, ever since middle school, smiled its goofy smile at her as she wrote.
At that point, the darker, more mysterious part of The Ritual began. The words her t'antie read aloud were unintelligible, the other ingredients she tossed into the liquid bubbling in the cast-iron pot were at times nauseatingly recognizable, and the sound of rhythmic tapping came either from the older woman's foot, or an unseen MP3 player, or maybe from the walls themselves, who knew?
By now it was all a bit of a blur in Wendy's mind. She knew only that details of The Ritual were not to be repeated, in print or anywhere else. It was ancient and sacred. Ok, she could buy that. It all seemed kind of silly in the bright light of day anyway. Still...she felt strangely empowered.
Thus, the short story. Charlie/Hoyt had a bad night coming.
That's what The Power was for, right? Kick a little ass, cause a little fear, gain a little respect.
If you knew what my T'antie Iraska is capable of, Bixby, you'd just about genuflect and beg my forgiveness. And if she ever gave you that evil eye stare that she uses on rare occasions, you'd wet your pants.
* * *
Hoyt Bixby returned from the corner store carrying a small bag of groceries, with the freebie local newspaper under his arm. Back inside, he heard the click-clacking of keyboard keys. It had been constant all day yesterday, into the night, and here it was again. Not loud enough to be irritating, but enough to pique his interest.
“Whazzat you're writin' in there? Dumb-ass romance shit?” he wondered aloud. “You don't seem the type, sweetcakes, but that stuff does sell, right? Or you writin' eee-roticaaaaaaa?” He was by the wall between their houses, his voice deliberately loud enough to carry through and maybe into the next house beyond.
The typing stopped. Then started again, at a more frantic pace.
“Did that turn you on, sweetstuff?”
He dropped onto the couch, found the TV remote under a half-empty Cheetos bag, and blasted an old episode of The Brady Bunch. The mindless theme song, yet.
He shouted, “Hey darlin', here's a soundtrack for the movie version of your future Pulitzer Prize winner.”
At least his laughter drowned out the song.
Many hours later, Wendy saved her short story file and turned off the computer, then leaned back and stretched. Her shoulders creaked and her arms were stiff, as were her knees once she stood up and pushed back the chair. It had been a long two days of writing, but typing those two amazing words--THE END--made it all worthwhile.
“To hell with it. I'll take care of this stuff in the morning,” she said of the empty coffee mug, sticky counter top, and Chips Ahoy! bag with three cookies left in the bottom. Also, the little plastic basket with the aromatic remains of a pound of fresh strawberries, and a pile of crumpled sketchbook pages that had missed the wastepaper basket.
She smiled—no, smirked, really—as the words she'd written ran through her head, then she clicked off the light in the office/dining room and headed upstairs.
* * *
Hoyt Bixby lay in bed, listening. The house was quiet, except for the tick-tock of the small grandfather clock downstairs by the front door.
But something woke him.
Now, the familiar tha-dunk! of a truck hitting that huge pothole at the intersection.
Hoyt began to think maybe it was just a dream that did it, although he didn't dream much these days. Then his heart started thudding in his chest, as he heard the tiniest scraping sound downstairs. Shoe on hardwood floor? And a small noise, a floorboard. The sound stopped in mid-creak.
For the first time, Hoyt wished he'd said yes to that neighbor down the street with the big, nasty, half-Rottweiler/half-god-knows-what dog, who'd tried to pawn it off on him a few weeks ago. Although anything free was tempting, and he liked animals so much more than he did people, he'd figured the mutt probably ate about half his weight in dog food every day. No way he could afford that. Besides, he didn't trust the huge canine to decide it would prefer to munch on his jugular.
Right now a jugular-ripping mega-dog sounded very appealing. Hoyt could order, “Go get him, Killer!” and just stand back and watch. Instead, he was on his own. He leaned over the edge of the bed and reached for the baseball bat beneath it. Regardless of what he told local punks whenever they gave him a hard time, he didn't have a Glock under his pillow.
He heard an odd tinkling sound he couldn't quite place. And again. Oh, right. He got it. The keychain. The chain was long, loaded with more than a dozen keys, and hung from a peg by the back door. It was useless, really. Keys from former jobs, a former storage unit, former ... whatever. He never threw anything away.
The keys themselves hung about shoulder-high, and he bumped them sometimes when he was going out the door. Was somebody leaving? Or were they letting in more people?
Hoyt got to his feet, his thick socks cushioning his footsteps. He knew where the creaky floorboards were. Through the bedroom window, the streetlight two doors down flooded the room with enough amber light to allow him to avoid walking into the trunk at the foot of his bed and the chair with his shirt and jeans lying on it. He put the bat across the armrests, and slipped the pants on over his pajama bottoms.
He was shivering, and not just because the heat barely worked up on the second floor. He pulled on the flannel shirt. There was no time to button it.
Hoyt descended the stairs in slow motion, along the wall. Internally, a battle was going on, between the part of him that said he should have stayed upstairs and called the cops, and his younger self who said, You invaded MY house?! The latter won. It always did.
He reached the bottom of the stairs, padded across to the wide doorway that led to the dining room/kitchen area, and...
There they stood.
In the darkness, he could see their silhouettes by the light of the 100-gallon fish tank along the right side of the wall, behind them. Five men. Five tall, wide, hulking men.
Jesus God, who did I piss off?, was Hoyt's first thought.
They were only a few feet away. They said nothing. They did nothing. They didn't move, or raise a weapon, or turn a head.
There was no way Hoyt could win. He knew that. Probably not even against one of them, let alone five. But, what the hell. He wasn't going out like some pansy-ass loser.
He hoisted the bat to his shoulder, charged forward, and screamed what he deemed to be a perfectly appropriate charging-to-his-death-but-taking-one-of-the-bastards-with-him, “Aggghhhhh!”
He swung the bat like Babe Ruth trying for a home run, aiming for the head of the figure on the end of the line, to his right. The bat hit the shadow of a man, whizzed through his head, and the next head, and the next, to the last of the five.
Like they weren't even there. Like they were made of smoke.
Then, the silhouettes dissolved, dropping downward like powder, then...gone.
“What the fu―?” Hoyt started to croak, his throat so dry it hardly made a sound.
He made his way over to the light switch, not entirely sure he wanted to flick it. What would he see? Shadows turned to nothingness? He must be loony as a bedbug, right? What other explanation could there be? Maybe he was still asleep. Maybe it was nothing but a dream. Yeah. That made sense. That was the only thing that did make sense, in fact.
He flipped the switch.
Black powder lay in five piles, almost a foot high, along the line where the five “men” had stood.
By dawn, the powdery substance had been swept up, bagged, double-bagged, duct-taped, stuffed into a Hefty bag, duct-taped again, and Hoyt Bixby headed off to find a trash receptacle far from his house. Preferably, a bus ride or two away.
Wendy Holloway slept deeply, having woken up during the night to a scream from next door, then returning to the peaceful sleep of the avenged.
* * *
Wendy hummed--literally hummed--all workday at Haversons, a high-end department store where she'd been a sales clerk for only a month. Even her co-workers noticed, casually wondering if the smile on the face of the new, young, impossibly good-looking intern, Harrison, and Wendy's humming were more than a coincidence. She let it slide, thinking to herself, Studly DoRight? I should be so lucky. She didn't say that out loud, of course, because that's how rumors got started. She understood their curiosity. She was always polite; it was a necessary evil in the workplace. But being on her feet eight hours a day and waiting on snobby rich chicks who looked down their noses at her, she couldn't even fake more than that. So, humming? A curiosity for them, she was sure.
A good night's sleep (and more to come, hopefully) was enough to give her that. There had been no cigarette smoke during the night or in the morning, no mind-jolting sitcoms blaring, no inane, through-the-wall snark. Bixby was scared shitless and gone; she felt that in every fiber of her being.
She couldn't wait to get home and start writing. In peace.
I have my life back, she thought. About damn time.
* * *
Hoyt Bixby blinked as he emerged from the retro movie theater, after hours in darkness watching a Planet of the Apes marathon of the old, original films--guys in furry suits pretending to be apes, but doing a fairly spiffy job of it. There was a certain style, and a whole lot of nostalgia, and he almost forgot about last night.
He pulled his collar up, against the icy wind. The sun would be down soon, so it would only get colder. He headed for the bus stop two blocks away. He wasn't sure home was the place he wanted to be, but where else was there to go? He still couldn't wrap his mind around what he'd seen, what he'd done, and why he was still in the land of the living. More importantly, who'd sent those guys? Hell, what were those guys? Shadow hit men? If he'd turned on the light while they were there, would they have disappeared? Or solidified and beat him to a bloody pulp?
Then he thought, But I didn't, and they didn't, and I kicked THEIR asses.
He had a hint of a smile—slightly lopsided, dimpled, with the bristly, unshaven look of Don Johnson in Miami Vice--as he crossed the intersection at 11th and Christian. Catching his reflection in a store window at the corner, he couldn't help thinking he looked like a burnt-out private detective on a crime thriller paperback cover. Then, he reconsidered. With the creepy experience he'd had, one of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books might be more appropriate. And he'd taken care of business without a wizard wand for a weapon, or a wise-ass, talking skull sidekick.
Time to go home. The shock's worn off and I ain't runnin' from nobody.
Less than a minute later, he stood still, thinking, I heard that, didn't I? But there were only traffic noises.
“Guess not,” he muttered, shoving his hands into his pockets. His fingers were started to get numb.
He took another step and heard it again. He stopped, looked around, and finally saw it. A furry little rear end and two back legs, sticking out of a vertical drainpipe attached to a hardware store.
“What the hell?” He squatted down and reached out to touch it. It cried out in panic. He tugged. “Well, you're good and stuck, aren't you?”
He wiggled it a bit, pulled some more, and it slid out, wailing like the baby it was; a scrawny kitten maybe ten weeks old, if that.
“What'choo doin' in there, fuzzface? Trying to get out of the wind? Kinda dumb place to do it.” It stared up at him with big blue eyes, mewing quietly now. It's fur was long, a swirl of brown and grey, with a white chest and four white feet. It would be a beauty, clean. Instead, it was dirty and matted and shivering.
Hoyt looked up at a woman in an expensive coat and spiky heels walking toward him. She smiled, then turned her head and kept walking.
“Yeah, I get it, lady. 'How sweet of you, mister, but don't think you're gonna foist that thing off on me,'” he said, loud enough for her to hear.
She walked a bit faster and crossed the street.
“Bitch,” Hoyt muttered, then turned his attention back to the kitten “You know, furball, I need a new problem like a need a damn hole in my head.”
A quick search of the area turned up no mother cat or her litter.
“I guess I'm stuck with you for now, fuzzface,” Hoyt said, as the kitten licked his fingers and rubbed its head on his palm. He opened his coat and put the kitten inside, against his collarbone, pulling the warm material around it. “Let's go.”
He headed for the bus stop.
“What's next, an orphan who fell down a well?” he mumbled to himself along the way.
* * *
Wendy's smile faded as soon as she walked into her house after work. She could hear the sound of a blender next door, and the smell of cigarette smoke was in her living room. Faint, but there. She opened the window a bit. Again.
After changing into comfy fleece pants and an over-sized sweatshirt, she forced herself to have dinner even though she'd lost her appetite. Instead of the fresh pasta and salad she'd planned while on her way home, she reluctantly tossed a Stouffer's dinner into the microwave, and mostly just picked at it after it was done.
She didn't understand it.
She had been absolutely certain Hoyt Bixby would be long gone by now, hiding in some hole in the wall, out of the way motel. Or maybe couch-surfing at some fresh-out-of-rehab old friend's house. Or her favorite scenario: shaking in his boots with a group of homeless people under a bridge somewhere. He didn't have the guts to stand his ground against a frightening gang that was out to get him, did he?
Well, apparently he did.
Wendy sat down at the computer and opened her most recent document. She stared at the home invaders scene, wondering where it went wrong. It had seemed simple enough: character Charlie Glutz was confronted by a home-invading gang with backpacks full of torture devices, and demands that he tell them all that he knew, when in fact he didn't know anything. The crazy/violent leader stuck Charlie's whing-whang in a bolt cutter, but a dramatic ring tone from his smartphone stopped that about-to-be-mega-bris. Then, a short, coded phone conversation, the visit ending with the promise of, “We have to leave, but we'll be back!”
Charlie had tried to be a tough guy at first, but ended up whimpering and crapping his pants. No way he would hang around at that address and wait for more to come.
And in real life, neither would Hoyt Bixby, she'd assumed. It seemed logical. He was a lot of things, but stupid wasn't one of them.
Yet, he was still here.
Story-wise, Wendy had a few other ideas, listed at the bottom of the page lest she forget them, but try as she might, she couldn't get a new scene started. Her mind felt like a ball in a pinball machine, bouncing around erratically at an ever-increasing speed.
This wasn't working. She needed to calm down.
She closed the document and went to the Hulu.com website. After debating about romantic movies versus comedies, she decided on an old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, season six.
* * *
After dinner, Hoyt Bixby hoisted a trash bag by the drawstring and carried it out the back door. It was heavy. In the bottom was a layer of grungy, warped floor tiles from his bathroom. The bag started to stretch, but he dumped it beside the recycle bin before it could rip.
Turning to go back inside, something caught his eye, and an idea popped into his head. A somewhat sinister idea, given the circumstances. That made it irresistible.
A few minutes later, he came back out again. Quietly. The freebie newspaper was rolled up. He flicked his Bic lighter and smiled as the paper caught fire. Leaning over the cyclone fence, he tossed it with his usual perfect aim, and it landed beneath Wendy Holloway's slightly open window.
Buffy and Spike the vampire were in the middle of a hot-and-heavy sex scene when Wendy's wheezing became coughing, and she recognized the smell of smoke. Not cigarette smoke, just smoke. She looked out the back window and saw flames flickering below, in the early evening darkness.
Minutes later, the last of the newspaper fire was stomped out, and Wendy stared so hard at Hoyt Bixby's backdoor that with a little paranormal help she might have burned a hole right through it.
She had one overriding thought: Oh, you want a battle? Bring it on!
She went straight to her computer. She had work to do.
* * *
It was after midnight. The neighborhood was quiet except for a siren off in the distance, fading as the vehicle moved farther away, then gone altogether.
Rocky the (non-flying) squirrel sat on the cable wire above the backyard that was so familiar to him, but instead of going down, he scrambled up the wall, his claws catching on brick edges and into cracks and crevices in the old mortar. He was on the roof in seconds. He scampered across to the front of the house, then down four doors to the tree that surpassed roof height, and hopped onto a branch. Seconds later, he scuttled down the trunk and along the sidewalk, back to Hoyt Bixby's house.
Scratching at the metal lid on the mail slot at the bottom of the door, he got it open a bit, then nosed it up the rest of the way. He stuck his head in, listening. The house was dark and silent except for a rhythmic, soothing tick-tock. He squeezed his head through, and the rest of him, and dropped down onto the hardwood floor.
Wendy woke to horrendous, blood-curdling screeching. Not from Hoyt Bixby, she could tell. From a small animal. Damn. Did the old geezer win against the squirrel that fast?
Thuds down the stairs. Hoyt shouting. Then, Hoyt yelling in apparent pain. Crashes of wood against the floor. An animal scream, and chattering, while in the background the earlier screech continued.
Less than a minute later, all was quiet except for a low, plaintive cry and Hoyt muttering. Wendy couldn't make out the words, but his tone was soft, sad, consoling.
Wendy's heart was thudding in her chest.
What the HELL is going on?! This isn't how it was supposed to go! The squirrel, yes, but what's that second animal? Does he have a pet? He never gave any indication that he had a damn pet!
How loud had the confrontation been, the pain-filled wails? Front bedroom lights had instantly gone on, up and down the street.
A few minutes later, Wendy stood in the darkness of her living room, peeking out through the blinds. Several neighbors stood on Bixby's sidewalk. His door was wide open, the light streaming all around him. He held his hands out with both palms up, almost like an offering. In the center lay what was left of a kitten. A beautiful, blood-soaked kitten.
Wendy's heart felt squeezed to near-bursting. She wanted to cry, but no tears would come.
You murderous bitch, you.
Not words from Hoyt Bixby. They formed in her mind, in her heart, in her soul.
What had she done?
* * *
The old (but don't dare call her elderly) woman stood at the stove, stirring a large, black, cast iron pot, and sprinkling in bits of leaves.
Wendy watched, mesmerized, wondering what special powers were being created right before her eyes.
“That's a potion for someone in need, T'antie?” she whispered. “What will it do? What...What is it?”
Madam Iraska chuckled. “I do have a regular life, too, you know, my dear. There's a retirement party at the seniors center tomorrow and I promised I'd make some. My chili would make Satan himself cram bread into his mouth as tears streamed down his face, but they love it that way.”
Minutes later, it was simmering on the stove and Wendy and her t'antie sat down at the kitchen table. Clearly, Wendy was distressed. In a stammering voice, she related what had happened the night before, her eyes darting around, her spoon continually stirring coffee in a cup with a delicate rose pattern on it.
Wendy's head hung down. She barely nodded.
“And also surprised, shocked, yes? Somehow?”
Wendy looked up at her.
“My neesha...The Power has a life of its own. The Power can have teeth, a brain, the strength of a lion. But never heart. Never a soul. It does what it does. I have told you enough stories since you were a tiny tot sitting on my lap, that you should know this. Did even one of those stories end well? Did the holder of such powers ever once say, that was exactly what I wanted? No. But you heard what you wanted to hear. And now you did what you wanted to do. Whether you realized that or not, it was what you wanted to do. You used The Power because you didn't want blood on your hands. Well. Now you see. When you wield power, the blood is always on you. Always.”
“But it didn't go the way I wrote it,” Wendy insisted. “I think it started out right, but it... ”
“Wandered? The Power is a part of you, dear neesha. You have the blood of generations of this family running through your veins. And that which is your blessing--a vivid imagination--can at times also be a curse. The Power came from within you. I woke it up. But you set it free. It then went on to do precisely what you do: to imagine.”
She looked into her great-grandniece's eyes and took her hand.
“It was sad. But there are worse things in this world. You have a good heart. A bad temper sometimes, but a good heart. Remember that, and forgive yourself.”
* * *
Hours later, Wendy tried watching TV, but couldn't concentrate. The vague scent of cigarette smoke didn't help, nor did the sound of machine gun fire from Hoyt Bixby's TV. She switched channels, looking for a show that didn't rely on dialogue she might miss, and settled on Dancing With The Stars. But instead of rooting for someone, she felt a distinct urge to reach out a foot and trip the quasi-celebrities as they tangoed across the screen. Halfway through, she gave up and went to bed.
* * *
Had it not been 3 a.m., surely someone would have noticed the strange procession. They skittered down tree trunks, over fences, along curbs, with that stop/start hopping they do, once on the ground. When they reached the street that was their destination, they came single-file, more than thirty of them, maybe closer to forty, stopping to sniff the air frequently, their poofy, grey tails upright behind them.
They reached Wendy Holloway's street. One by one, they wriggled through the mail slot in her front door.
It was an awesome dream, inspired by the soft, wet nuzzling on her neck. Wendy smiled and murmured something unintelligible but obviously hot and horny. In her mind, actor Chris Hemsworth was beside her on the bed, leaning over her with his long, flowing, blonde Thor hair tickling her face. He was nuzzling--and now nipping--her neck.
It was erotic, the sharp little pains from those nips, as was the feel of warm blood running down her skin, to the bed sheet. For a second or two. Then, just painful. Then, agonizing, as teeth tore into her throat from both sides, and her abdomen, and ripped at and bit off toes as she convulsively kicked her feet.
Her larynx was gone before she ever thought to scream. The sound of gasping and gurgling, as blood went down her airway and into her lungs, didn't last long.
Moments later, tiny clawed feet carried grey-furred bodies and twitching, fuzzy tails. One after another they hopped down the stairs, like a furry, living Slinky.
And out the mail slot they went.
Hoyt Bixby awoke from a dream in which Rocky was back, chattering away and stuffing his cheeks with almonds at the same time. Bixby fought back a twinge of guilt at having caved in the little guy's skull when he went ballistic and attacked the kitten, then bit his fingers.
Shit happens, he told himself. Get over it. For a second or two, he thought he heard a strange gurgling sound. Rain going down the drainpipe?
There was only silence now.
He rolled over and went back to sleep.
* * *
Downstairs in Wendy Holloway's dining room/office, the darkness was lessened only by the light shining from the kitchen. She always left the range hood light on at night. The kitchen was empty, but at her desk in the other room, a pitch-black finger shape reached out and pressed the computer's ON button. In a few seconds, the Energy Star monitor sprang to life and the computer's wallpaper—a gorgeous Hawaiian sunset—provided more light.
Seated before the screen was more than a shadow, more than a silhouette; a shape that perfectly replicated Wendy's. It was black in the way only deep space can be, as if it were comprised of a condensed universe, all blackness and stars and nebulae and dark matter.
It's body language gave the impression that this shadowy being was relaxed, content, right where it wanted to be. Where it belonged.
There was the outline of a head, but no real features, so whether it's expression was pensive or eager or passionate (or just blank) as it began typing was anybody's guess. But type, it did, because there were so many ideas and scenes and plots and descriptions and lines of dialogue crammed inside of it, to the point of almost bursting.
And they came pouring out until almost dawn, shaping up into a short story that would scare the bejesus out of any reader, and make them weep, and gasp with fear, and jump at the slightest nighttime sound, before they were done.
As each character in the story sprang to life through the keys and onto the screen, they also spilled out onto the floor--a line of black powder that cascaded down from the lower left corner of the monitor like a tiny ebony waterfall, piling up, shaping up, forming a shadow person who had not existed until a shadow mind created them. One after another, they formed and then wandered off, shuffling a bit at first until they got the hang of walking, and then out through the locked front door like it wasn't even there.
Their destinations? For each, a secret all their own. They wandered off in different directions. The newly created story was complex and convoluted and they would spend many nights completing its tasks in the world outside of the computer.
Copyright ©2015 Nik Barnabee. All Rights Reserved.