To read it all, use side-scrolling in the quotation.
Here’s a story I wrote, it’s called “Indelible” : (Sorry for the formatting, didn’t keep the original spacing. Up to you, if you think it’s worth it ;p)
I’d been trying to find a place to live in Santa Cruz for nearly 6 weeks. Staying with a friend, who in turn had been renting a guest room from a native. They gave me the attic, but with a definite deadline… remodeling soon, and tight quarters for three. Sharon had begun to run out of patience with my inability to find a place, and so had I.
There were rooms, and apartments available, but I couldn’t get in the door. Not without a local renting history. I think that most Cruzers expected a certain degree of transience from their new residents, but at least the students could be counted on to stick out the year. Enough software firms had started, then immediately folded, to justify concern, but at the same time there would always be someone looking for a place to rent.
Sharon, it turned out, had a sister who rented houses in town. She’d kept this hidden for the entirety of my stay in her attic, most likely to gauge me before recommending me to family. In the end, I’d been granted a shrug for a referral, a list of promises to uphold, and a devout Christian for a landlord.
None of which had anything to do with why I’d asked Hector to come along today. I'd asked him because I knew he wouldn't back down. That if things got rough, he'd have my back. I didn't really expect it to come to that but I couldn't be certain. So Hector came along as muscle.
I'd explained things as best I could-- how I'd intended to move into a new apartment, but the tenant had refused to vacate. How he'd threatened my mail in some bitter attempt at leverage. How I'd been left with no one to turn to, as my new landlord had gone out of town. So I'd determined to take the fight to the soon- to- be former occupant, and asked Hector for the favor.
Hector had looked at me and half- smiled. His close- shaven head sported a scar or two, little divots where no hair would grow. I could barely make out his eyes behind his sunglasses, but I knew they were moving from side to side. They always were.
"Okay, I can go with you. You really think this guy's going to get aggro? Cuz I've been feeling a little tense lately, you know, and I wouldn't mind relaxin some. You know what I mean. But I won't hit him unless he swings at you first, okay?"
I nodded. I didn't really think it'd come to that, but if there were no possibility of it at all I'd have gone alone. Hector returned my nod. "Okay, but you're going to owe me one. Next time I need a favor, right?"
"Sure. Whatever you need." And with that, we were off, hoping I'd find myself with a place to sleep that night. The night before had been too stressful, too weird, for rest, and I really wanted to settle in.
I’d gone to the new place to find out when they planned to vacate, as I’d have moved in at midnight if possible. After drinking a good number of pints at the Red Door, one of the guys from work had decided to come along. I’d been talking to one of the tenants when we both heard the commotion from the other room. Derek had been grabbed by the wrist, and in his free hand the other guy held something overhead. No contest, really—Derek is a five foot clothes- hanger with heavy metal hair, and the other guy was thick everywhere. Reason number one that Hector had come along today.
Nearest I could make out, Derek had found an antique nail somewhere in the mess of boxes and packing and had tried to pocket it. Thought it had power, he told me later, and maybe it had, but no good had already come of it. Said he’d found it in the fireplace ashes, and had asked to take it, but the guy had gotten irate. I didn’t know whose story was true, and I didn’t know why they’d get so fired up over a rusty spike, but I’d been placed smack in the middle. That night, Derek had paid me back with his couch, and in the morning Hector and I’d returned to the scene of the crime.
The not- quite former tenant met me on the porch. “I thought I should warn you,” she began, the expression on her face warning enough. “Rick is pissed, and he wants to make things hard on you. He’s keeping some mail that got delivered here with your name, and he’s not giving up the keys. He’s out getting boxes, so you may want to come back later.”
“What’s the problem? I know my buddy caused a scene, but he left without the nail. Why is it still an issue?”
She smiled. “He’s just making a point. Sorry if it’s causing you a problem, but I think he’s trying to protect me. That nail’s been in my family for a long time, so now he’s over- reacting. Kinda sexy, don’t you think?”
I felt for happy for her, sorta, but ill for me. I tried to smile back. “Sure… ok, we’ll just hang out until he gets back. Seriously, do you think you’ll be out of here today?”
“Yeah, I do. We’ve got places to be, too.”
“Ok, thanks. I’m looking forward to moving in. I’ve been living out of boxes for nearly two months.” She’d already moved into the house, and I sat beside Hector with a sigh. He rolled his eyes.
“I ain’t got all day, yo.”
“It’s cool, if you need to take off. Thanks for coming.”
“Naw, it’s alright. I’ll hang for awhile. You really think this guy’s going to throw a punch?”
“He’s pretty riled up, seems. I dunno. If he does, let me stand in there until one of us is down. If it’s me, you can keep him from killing me, maybe.” I glanced over my shoulder, but she hadn’t reacted. “I hope it’s easier than that. Maybe they’ll just pack the truck and be on their way.” I shifted around, tried to get comfortable. To get used to my new home. Couldn’t breathe easy yet. Lots of shade, nice spot for a hammock.
“So when you gonna have a party, dog?” Hector leaned back against the rail, cracked his knuckles.
“Aren’t you supposed to do that for me? Like, a housewarming?”
“Yo, aren’t I doing enough?”
“xxxx, sitting around? Real tough assignment.” Halloween, then. Have to be a party for the holiday. A chance to sport my horns.
“Fine, fine. If this dude don’t show soon, I’m out of here.” I could tell he didn’t mean it, that he’d wait around until I called things off. One of the reasons I’d asked him.
I caught a slight smile from Hector as the car pulled into the drive, and then Rick appeared. In an instant, he’d dropped his boxes and thrown back his shoulders. I knew he’d want to have the first word, so I let him.
“Hey, you can’t be here. We’re still here. I don’t know when we’ll be done.” The lady of the house had arrived on the scene, almost magically transported to her boyfriend’s side.
“Yeah, I can see that. Look, I don’t know what happened last night with my buddy,”
“That guy was an xxxx!” Rick interjected. His eyes had begun to swell, and his collar had suddenly constricted. I got to my feet and continued.
“but, I don’t really want to get involved. He was a little drunk, no harm was done, and I just want to move into my new place. I won’t get in your way. I would like to see what I’ve gotten in the mail, however.”
Rick tensed, as if he were anchoring a tug- of- war with himself. When he remembered to breathe, the color drained from his face. “It’s inside. Go get it, hon.” He stooped to retrieve his cardboard, dropped it onto the porch, and returned to his car. I looked at Hector and shrugged. A moment later I had my mail in hand, one forwarded bill and a merchant’s flyer. Mission accomplished.
There were five of us splayed about the stairwell, acting like we owned the place. I’d joined the studio late, to help meet deadlines, and by the time I’d arrived the crew of Icarus studios had claimed the stairs as their lounge. Pot smoke permeated the walls, resin and ash had collected in the corners. Today, Todd had called for the break, after packing the pipe at his desk. Two of the other programmers had followed, as well as one of the artists. I hit the bowl, passed it to Harold, who drew on it lightly before passing to his left.
“Well, if you’re going to try to write some code, Todd here’s got all sorts of books on his shelf. He’s still looking stuff up in there all the time, as a matter of fact!” Harold snorted, all spit and smoke. Eight years, and he’d still retained his British accent.
“I’ve got to, to try to fix the xxxx you fuckers xxxx up in the first place. Like those arms? Gorilla arms, man. I had to look up all sorts of xxxx to fix that xxxx.” Todd tugged at his beard and laughed. “Don’t be telling me that’s the animator’s fault, either. I’ve seen what they gave you guys to work with.”
They’d been working on the boxing game for 7 months by the time I’d arrived, and the parent company wasn’t so happy with the results so far. I’d been hired as a contractor to do assistant design, and so far my time had mostly involved proofing and writing dialogue for the various trainers, coaches, and promoters. I’d been having a blast, and had never been paid so well.
The door flew open, and our producer stepped onto the landing. “Oh here you guys are. Well, I’ve been talking to the guys, and,” James’s eyes lit up with the bowl, “hey hey, that seems like a good idea, yes sir,” and without pausing he’d inhaled and passed the pipe. “I’ve been talking to the guys, and they really like the intro, but there seem to be some strange sounds in the song, and we need some people to lend their ears and tell me what they think. Who wants to come?” James’ gray hair started somewhere toward the back of his head and continued past his shoulders, and as he spoke he had a habit of brushing imaginary bangs from his brow. No one responded.
“Come on, it will only take a minute, finish what you’re doing then come meet me in my office.” Bam, the door closed, and Todd’s packing another bowl.
“I’m not going, man. I’ve got plenty to do already.” Todd sparks the weed, passes it to Jonathan, who doesn’t smoke. He hands it to me, and I draw deeply.
“I’ll go. Might as well.” I hand the pipe to Harold, who manages to hold his hit better. “Alright, I’m going in. Thanks, Todd.” I’ve only known them for a short while, but I’ve come to like them all quickly. We looked out for each other. I follow James inside, stop at the pot for a cup of coffee, and enter his office as quietly as I can.
James’ wearing a large set of plush earphones, but he’s also got the speakers loud enough to fill the room. Paul, Derek, and Hector are already present. The intro to the game is a variation on the theme for HBO Boxing, with a slower build and a little more fanfare. The walls, or perhaps the lights in the room, are more yellow than usual and I close my eyes to focus. The coffee is warm, and I center myself around that.
“There!” James says suddenly. I hadn’t heard anything unusual. I open my eyes and Derek is nodding slightly. He begins to speak, but James interrupts: “It’s going to happen again, a little clicking sound, after the last horn, listen.” I try, but again fail to hear anything unusual. James pokes the air with his finger, “There!” I glance at Paul, who raises one eyebrow in response.
“Yeah man, I heard something there, doesn’t sound like background noise,” Derek tugs on his goatee, black streaked with enough grey to reveal his age. Derek belonged to the Brit contingent, along with Harold and Justin, and they’d all worked together at one point or another overseas before re- uniting on this project. His accent is least pronounced, perhaps because he speaks so slowly. Verbally, Derek seems terribly exhausted.
James replays the track and we listen again.
“There!” James says suddenly. I hadn’t heard anything unusual. I open my eyes and Derek is nodding slightly. He begins to speak, but James interrupts: “It’s going to happen again, a little clicking sound, after the last horn, listen.” I try, but again fail to hear anything unusual. James stabs the air with his finger, “There!” I glance at Paul, who shrugs in response.
Hector raises his sunglasses to gain my attention, motions as if he were smoking a pipe and points at me. I nod. “I don’t hear it man, and I gotta split.” He’s speaking as he moves, past me and out the door. James is finding the beginning of the soundtrack and doesn’t look up.
“Yeah, yeah, I imagine you have plenty to do. Derek, stay here and listen again, see if we can pin it down, ok? Good, good.” I follow Hector from the room, Paul on my heels.
“So what’s up?” Hector asks. “You want to go hit the stairs?”
“No, man, I was just out there. I thought you were telling me I was stoned. I was agreeing with you.” I smile. Silly xxxx.
“Oh, doesn’t matter. Look, I need you to come with me. I’m going to get my tat touched up, and I want you to hang out while I’m there.” Hector’s shades are back in place, and he’s nearly reached the elevator. I catch up and look back at Paul.
“You coming?” I ask.
“Nah, I’m going to keep working a bit and go to lunch. You coming back? I need you to work on the training sequence.”
“Probably. I already did a bunch of that, anyway. Guess it depends how long this takes. I don’t have to stay for the whole thing, I’d think.” The elevator doors open, and Hector and I step inside. In the mirrored walls I study his tattoo, a technological dragon crawling from shoulder to elbow. The tongue wraps around his forearm, nearly to his wrist. I press the ground button, we space ourselves apart, and we’re down.
“So what’s up with this?” I ask him. It’s my turn to be on the outside. I can only assume that it has to do with the favor, and Hector confirms.
“Consider this the first part of payback. It’s no big deal, just want you to check out some of this guy’s art.”
“I already know I like his art,” I told him. I had several tattoos myself, but it’d been awhile since I’d had any work done.
“So, come on, you owe me. Keep me company while he works.” I can’t argue with that. Tattoos pass so much better with conversation to distract.
“You’re not one of those guys that go for the pain?” I ask. Hector shakes his head.
“No way, I go because I like the reactions I get. Old women freaking out, and xxxx.” My own tattoos are mostly on my back, pretty well- hidden. Hector flaunts his, all muscle- tees, tatted from neck to waist. I grin. “What about you? Why do you go?” “It’s something I do for myself,” I explain. I’d thought about it before, part of the rationalization for getting inked the first time. “Something personal that no one can take away. Plus, I like the rush afterwards, all the endorphins. I always walk out of there feeling so high.”
“Heh, see, you do like the pain.” We’ve passed a few restaurants, a toy store, and now a bookstore before turning off the mall toward the waterfront.
“No, no,” I’m quick to correct him. “I hate that part. My last tattoo artist used two few needles, so it took forever and hurt like hell. That one still needs to be finished, actually.” It’s a large sun, at the top of my back, given sort of grandfatherly features. Needs more color.
The shop is called Under the Gun Tattoo, and we enter to find a couple students browsing the flash art. There’s a guy behind the desk up front, and very little space to maneuver. Fans propel the odors particular to a tattoo parlor around the room, the stink of the inks bouncing off rubbing alcohol and sweat like bumper cars. I grab a binder from the table and begin to leaf through it as Hector greets the owner.
The guy’s art is good, but nothing I’d want on my body. Nice detail, but too technological. All gears and cables, like modern hydras. Machine myths. I came upon Hector’s, the uncolored outline, and took a closer look. A Chinese dragon, whiskers replaced by optic wires, the tongue a series of overlapping chips. Its eyes were digital cameras, its mane a twisted mass of neon tubing. Each lens pointed a different direction, mimicking a chameleon, and its tail tapered to a frenzy of micro- filaments. The thing looked fierce. An air dragon, he’d told me, for communication and mental swiftness. The artist had colored it, but Hector had kept his to the black outline. Today, he’d decided to come in for a little white on the teeth, eyes, and claws.
Hector calls me over to make introductions. “Terry, Liam.” Liam extends his hand and I shake it, all rings and finger strength. I grin.
“Are those wedding bands?” I ask. Liam smiles back.
“Yeah,” he wiggles the fingers of his right hand, “Four so far, and then,” he shows me the left, “one current.” He’s got full sleeves, wrist to shoulder, a gambling motif for the left arm and an undead army for the right.
“Your wife doesn’t mind?” I follow them into the back, and as Hector takes a seat I look around.
“Nah, she sees it like I do, a reminder to keep things fresh. You never know, right? This way I’m not about to take anything for granted, dig?” There are pinup books, art books, sketches tacked to the walls. Swamp Thing action figures climb the shelves, while Tie Fighters chase the Starship Enterprise on strings from the ceiling. Liam moves quickly: squirts ink into thimble- sized bowls, loads the gun with new needles, stretches gloves to his wrist with a snap. Swabs Hector’s arm, gives ink to the needles, pulls the skin taut to work.
“I’ll probably come back one more time for a little red, and call it good.” Hector tells us. “Another few weeks, I guess, maybe with my next paycheck.” Liam wipes Hector’s arm clean for a better look, reapplies the ink. The needles, off and on, seem to hum with urgency, crowding the room. Liam nods.
“Sure, these touchups are quick. Where do you want the red?”
“Thinking the mane, maybe the tail.” Hector is calm, but I know his pulse is racing.
“I could do that today, no problem, if you want to catch me later.”
“Nah, it’s cool, I’ll just get square this time for last and come back when it heals. Gives me something to do on my lunch.”
“You’re the boss,” Liam smears white ink across Hector’s shoulder and begins to dot the claws. It’s over in no time. “Want me to cover it up?”
“No, it’s cool. I can take care of it, no problem. This one didn’t scab up at all.” Hector pays and we’re out the door, back to the mall.
“You going back to work?” Hector asks. I ignore him.
“So that’s it, we’re even? That was how I pay you back?”
Hector pretends to chew something, eyes roaming. “Wellll,” he begins, “not really. That was just the first step of the plan. I’m going to need your help when I go back again.”
“Help with what? You don’t need me there for a ten minute tattoo.” I kick a rock, which takes an odd bounce into a nearby car. I cringe.
“No, remember that book with my tattoo in it? I need you to steal it.”
“Woah, what do you mean, steal it? What do you want it for?” I’m hungry, and we stop at Greek place for gyros. “That’s crazy.”
“Look, you asked me to come along in case you needed someone pounded. This is a lot less violent.”
“Why?” I asked again. Hector looked down at his arm and answered.
“I don’t want anyone else to have it, man. I tried to buy the original, and he didn’t want to sell it. Likes to keep everything, he said. So, I thought about it. Couldn’t sleep, whatever. Was really bugging me out. So I decided, xxxx it. I’ll just take it. I just need a distraction.”
“So I’m the distraction?” Licking tzatziki sauce from my fingers.
“You want to get inked?” I do, but I can’t afford it.
“Sure, if you’re buying.” Hector scoffs.
“No way, dog, you owe me, not the other way around. Anyway, he won’t even notice it. You saw how many books were spread out around there.”
“Why not just steal the one pic?” We dump our trash, refill our cokes and head back to the studio.
“No, he’d know it was me. I’m the first person he’d want to talk to, anyway.”
“I bet he’d blow it off. Assume it got lost, or something.”
“I dunno, I think the whole book is best. So you’ll do it, is that what you’re saying?” Hector removes his sunglasses in the elevator, scratches his head.
“I’m going to need to think about this,” I tell him. Hector doesn’t look back, makes a beeline for the stairwell.
“Do what’s right, dog.”
The guys at the studio had decided to have a party for Halloween, and I’d volunteered my new place. I’d had the same costume for several years, but as this was a new crowd I didn’t give it a second thought. I’d assembled it over several Renaissance Faires, but the final touch always had to be grown about two weeks in advance. The perfect Pan needed the perfect goatee to complete the effect.
The ceramic horns were held to my head by a string, knotted behind my ears. I’d not cut my hair for several months, and an autumn leaf tucked here and there alluded to having recently rolled with a nymph or two. There had been Halloweens when I’d gone shirtless, and Halloweens when I’d safety- pinned rolls of carpet to my legs, but this year I’d gone for loose black pants, the green renaissance shirt, and a black vest with raised shoulders. My “Pan gone to town” look. Only right, considering I could call the holiday my own.
I’d really come to like my house. Fireplace, wood floors, spacious living room with a high ceiling. Most folks had arrived early with the keg, which had been placed outside in a trash can filled with ice. Todd had come in white face paint, red streaks marking a trail from each eye. Hector had come in heavy metal garb, all leather and shocked- out wig, twirling drumsticks between his fingers. In one corner, a rubber Frankenstein’s Monster towered over a sexy devil. In another, an accident victim took her drink from an Egyptian Pharoah. Derek had come as a corpse, blacked- out eyes and rotted cheeks, hair seemingly reduced to a patchwork.
When Marilyn arrived, she immediately caught my eye. We had all the makings of a classic: two mythical beings, taking advantage of a time that would never come again. She’d worn her white, shoulderless dress, absent the updraft, and she’d bobbed her hair short, just below the ears. I’d been in mid- sentence when she’d entered, accompanied by Harold (software pirate, festooned with a booty of burnt CDs, mixes for the guests), and James (costumeless, already explaining that he can’t stay, just wanted to have a beer, say hello, getting too old to stay out so late, need to be getting home).
Marilyn Monroe. Not the sort of thing a rutting god ignores. I asked Harold, first chance.
“She’s got a boyfriend, mate.” He leaned toward me, dropped his voice. “Arrr, but I’ll tell you, he’s a good piece away from here, and they’re none too happy.”
I grinned. “Who’s she with? Dimaggio? Art?” Harold the pirate didn’t play along.
“No, he’s in LA, mate. They haven’t seen each other for months. I think she’s a bit lonely, if you catch my meaning. I’ve known her a couple years, now, and I know she loves him though.” Together, we watched her move from the living room, to the kitchen, to join us at the keg. Harold winked at me, “Fetch her a beer. Who knows, she may fancy you.”
“So,” I began, “How’s Hollywood?”
She smiled, and it felt as if the switch on my brain had been switched to “off”. I tried to stay in character, all flattery and obvious intent.
“Hollywood can be hard on a girl,” she breathed, eyelashes impossibly long over the rim of her cup. “Sometimes I think I’d be better off working magazines, again.”
“I’m sure I could find a camera around, put that to the test…”
“And do you work for a magazine, Mr…”
“Pan,” I bowed slightly. “Just, Pan. Welcome to my home.” Hoping to impress.
“Oh, you live here? This is a nice place. Do you live here alone?”
“I do. Took me forever to find this place.” I finished my beer, poured another. Waited for the foam to settle.
“Forever, like, thousands of years?” Marilyn handed me her cup and I did my best to pour her the most perfect beer that had ever been poured. I felt the smile reach my cheeks at her words.
“Something like that,” I told her, topping off my beer. “It’s hard for me to stay in one place. Always on the go, wherever the wind wills me.”
“Must be nice.” She moved to my side, leaned back against the porch rail. Her scent engulfed me: recent cigarettes, rum?, and floral. “I tend to get stuck, myself. Been in this town for too long, already.” One silver ring on her right thumb, pink nails.
I shifted, enough that our shoulders nearly touched. I reveled in her slight warmth, in her willingness to stay near. “Aw, come on, where would you rather be?” I asked. It’d gotten pretty dark, and I couldn’t tell if her eyes were blue or grey. The moon couldn’t reach us through the trees, and the party seemed as distant.
“Oh, that’s a story for another time. Maybe it’s not even Marilyn’s story.” She leaned against me as a shiver rippled through her. I wanted to make everything better, but Pan knew only one way. Blue, I decided as she looked up at me, her eyes were blue. Her eyes were blue, and her lips were soft on mine.
Someone cleared their throat, and I turned to find Derek at the keg. “’lo, mate,” he greeted me. “Marilyn,” with a nod. His moustache had become drenched in foam, and he sucked at it as he spoke. “I invited a few folks to your bash. Hope you don’t mind.” I shrugged.
“Nah, of course not.” Marilyn pulled away, blew me a kiss, and headed inside.
“Sorry to have interrupted, T. She’s a fine bird, that one.”
“It’s ok. This way, I get to chase. Do you know her?” I refilled my beer, felt the stirrings of a buzz. Passed the tap and gave the keg a pump.
“Not so much, not as well as Harold. Say, my buddy is hoping to perform a little rite here tonight. Celebrate the Solstice, and all. See who we can reach. Would it be alright if we have a go at that?” Derek drained half his beer at once, refilled. I hesitated.
“What sort of rite?”
“Dunno, mate. You know him, though. Liam, did some ink on Hector. He and his wife will be here before long. He’s straight up, won’t cause a problem. Should be fun.” Derek pounded another beer. “Got to catch up, you know,” he said, pouring another.
“We’ll see,” I told him, refilling my own beer before moving to rejoin the party. Todd had appointed himself DJ, but the most recent song had abruptly ended. I found Harold at the stereo, loading the CD changer with his mixes.
“This should set us up for awhile,” he told me, tapping the tray closed and setting it to shuffle. He stood, and I’d been about to ask him Marilyn’s real name, when the Puritans arrived.
Liam and his wife were decked out from head to toe in black and white, from hat and hood to the buckles on their boots, straight out of the colonial era. Derek greeted them first, from across the room. A few heads turned, but most were strangers, and after a momentary lull the conversation resumed. I looked for Marilyn as the sounds of the Gorillaz filled the room, didn’t see her. Instead, Liam caught my eye. I sneered at him. Pan and Puritans didn’t exactly get along. Liam stared back dourly for a moment, before raising the corners of his mouth in a huge grin.
“This is the place,” he shouted out the door. A moment later, a boy in his early teens entered, guitar case in hand. His hair had been shellacked into a mess of purple spikes, his shirt torn and held together by safety pins. He resembled his mother: large, with pudgy features, pale skin. He leaned the guitar in a corner and asked for something to drink while Derek showed his parents to the keg.
It’d been over a week since Hector had gotten his touchup, and I’d been slowly succumbing to the pressure of my obligation. I’d tried to talk my way out of it. I’d argued that the favor I’d asked of Hector hadn’t involved anything criminal, that he was asking too much of me.
“Just because I didn’t pound the guy doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have, dude. You wanted me to. Otherwise you wouldn’t have brought me along.” Hector had countered. “The stakes are the same, even more in my favor, since I’m not asking you to do anything violent.”
Instead of trying to weasel out, I’d mostly resigned myself to doing as he’d asked. Tonight could make that harder. I didn’t want to like Liam, if I’d be robbing him. I resolved to find the starlet and hide out, but before I could find cover Derek had me by the elbow.
“Come on, then. Meet the family. I hope you don’t mind he brought his kid. Well, her kid, actually.” Derek’s words tumble over themselves as he hustles me along. I’ve never seen him so excited. “She’s a medium, you know. Full on trance. He’s no slouch either, as you’ll see.” I follow him outside, and catch a glimpse of Marilyn chatting with Frankenstein’s Monster. There’s a slight pinch to my heart, then I remember that Pan would invite the threesome and practical bound through the door.
Liam’s wife meets my gaze when my feet hit the ground. She smiles, and for a moment it’s as if we recognize each other. “Where’s your broomstick?” I ask, without knowing why. I hadn’t even conceived the words, but it’d been my voice, and now they’ve gotten stuck in the air between us.
“Ah, but I’m in disguise tonight, don’t you know?” Then, as if we’re conspiring, she whispers, “but you’d know me anywhere, wouldn’t you, you horny old goat?” For a moment I don’t notice the hand she’s extended, and as I accept her grip she introduces herself as Karen.
I can feel the blood rush to my face, before remembering the horns attached to my skull. Liam laughs, “She took you right out of your costume with that one, dude.” More laughter, Derek smearing black makeup across his face as he wipes his eyes. “Hey, cool party, thanks for having us over. Looks like the keg still has some life in it.”
I nod. “I think more people are going to show up after the bars close. It’s still pretty early.”
“More for us, eh?” Liam refills his cup. “Well, I’d like to start the séance before midnight, so we can take advantage of the holiday itself. I know Karen is raring to go. She looks forward to this every year, even more than I do.”
“Hmm,” I manage. “What’s involved?”
“Just need a space, any old floor, some candles, a red light bulb, something to represent the elements… No sacrifices, or anything. We brought everything we’ll need, and we’ll clean up after.”
“Spiritually, and literally.” Karen assures me. I nearly roll my eyes, but stop myself.
“Sure, okay, if there’s enough interest I have no problem with it. Might be fun.”
“Cool,” Liam claps me on the shoulder. “Derek said you were an alright dude. It’s your house, anyone you want to try to reach?” We’re back inside, Derek on the move around the room, informing others of the plan. Both my parents were dead, but I didn’t expect them to pay me a visit. Didn’t expect anyone, actually, as I’d been a firm believer in the absence of an afterlife for quite some time. I shrug in response.
“Not really. We’ll leave it up to them, I’d say.”
Karen stands beside me as Derek and Liam clear the floor. “This won’t be your first séance, will it?” She asks, as if she can already tell. I shake my head.
“My mother was a psychic for a living, actually. Seances weren’t her thing, but I attended a couple held by one of her friends. Can’t say they were convincing. Some loose agreement on an odor, which would be associated to a pet, and once we all got goosebumps from a chill, but nothing persuasive.”
“Ah. So what did your mom do?” Liam had placed a bowl of water along one wall, and a candle along another. Derek had lit a cone of incense opposite the water, and formed a small tier of stones opposite the candle.
“She started with automatic writing, but didn’t use anything, eventually. Straight readings. Lectured, taught classes in psychic development, that sort of thing. Supposedly she’d write in different languages, or different colored ink would come from the pen, but I never saw any of that. Maybe I was too young to remember, but I’m pretty sure she kept all that behind closed doors. I know her parents didn’t approve, didn’t understand what she did for a living.”
Conversation in the room had quieted, the stereo silenced, and Derek had lowered the lights. I could see the moon through the window, allowed myself a moment to feel fortunate. “You don’t believe, though, do you?” Karen asks as Liam returns. I shake my head.
“It’s not that simple. For me, I don’t think there’s an afterlife. For you, there very well may be. I don’t know. Maybe the best I can hope for is to see the manifestations of someone else’s faith.”
“Maybe you will,” Liam says, producing a dagger from his hip pocket. “I hope so. I hope it’s not your faith that smothers this room.” He turns to the bowl of water, cuts something into the air above it with the knife. The process is repeated over the candle, stones, and smoke, before he addresses the room.
“Okay, I appreciate you all taking part in this tonight. It’s the perfect time. The veils are thin, and it’s an opportunity that I never pass up.” A glance in my direction, “Thanks for inviting us tonight, too.” “Are we going to hold hands?” Todd laughs. Liam agrees.
“We are.” A group of folks had gathered outside, having decided to skip the ceremony, but Marilyn wasn’t among them. I excuse myself from Karen and sidle up to the starlet.
“Curious?” I ask.
“Now that would be dangerous, wouldn’t it? After all, look what it gets the cat.” She smiles, squeezes my hand in hers. I feel lightheaded and return the grin, sink to the floor. My other hand finds Derek’s, and in all there are about a dozen forming the circle.
“You don’t have to hold hands, really, just make some sort of contact to enforce the idea of a circle, okay? Think of it as a containment field, or something. You can touch your neighbor’s knee, touch fingertips, whatever makes you comfortable.” He takes a deep breath, then another. “Okay, here we go.”
Marilyn keeps my hand, and I find myself studying her nails. Slight pink, recently painted. I wonder if they were part of her costume, or an everyday affectation. She’s closed her eyes, as have several others, following Liam’s lead. As if projecting the words, he’s begun to intone, “Diana, Hecate, Isis, Freya and Bast. We ask that you aid our efforts, that you allow any who wish to reach us come near. Brigit, Persephone, Astarte and Tiamat, by the elements we’ve gathered we ask that the veils be parted, that we be heard.”
Karen interrupts. “The room is full of people,” Her eyes are half- lidded, her breathing deep and her back straight. “Gerald is strong. Does anyone know a Gerald? He seems to be near our host, which would make sense.”
My grandfather went by Jerry, could be. I remain silent, but the memories had already begun to unfurl. I’d driven the lead car at his funeral, though I hadn’t even hit my teens. The bar he’d owned had fielded a softball team, and I’d collect foul balls at the games, for quarters. He’d lost an eye at some point, and I realized that I’d never known how.
“He says that D is with you. He says that working more isn’t the answer. That you should see your grandmother again before she passes.” I keep quiet. D could be my mom, so it seemed like a hit. Good advice, anyway. Didn’t prove she wasn’t plucking it from my brain, somehow.
“There’s another, now, front of the line. I see a woman, young, maybe early twenties. She says she’s here for Todd.” Todd giggles. “She says she passed last year, maybe someone you went to high school with? She painted.” Todd pales. “She says it’s ok, what you did, that she understands.” Suddenly, the smell of paint remover fills the room. No one had broken the circle, no one could have released the scent, as far as I could tell. Todd’s head droops to his chest for a moment, and when he looks up again he’s kept his eyes closed. Just as suddenly, the odor has dispersed, and Karen has moved on to the next.
“There are dogs here, too. Three of them, playing.” She pauses. “There’s a woman, she says she was sick and you cared for her.” Marilyn’s turn. I squeeze her hand. I knew she had a boyfriend, that this was about Pan and Marilyn, not about myself and a stranger, and I suddenly didn’t want the night to end. I wonder about her world, about where she might work, about her blisses and fears. “She says that she could hear you read to her, although she couldn’t tell you then. She thanks you for being there and wishes she could have done something for you in return.” Marilyn nods, but Karen can’t tell.
Silence, and then Liam speaks. “Here’s yours, Derek. She died just before you both were to turn ten, something you were both looking forward to for being in double digits. Her birthday would have been a couple days ago, the 28th? She wants you to contact her sister. Something about how she’s unable to make friends, won’t let anyone new close.”
“It’s been thirty bloody years, mate.” Derek whispers. His hand in mine had begun to sweat, cold.
“Doesn’t matter,” Liam answers. “She still feels alone. She’s in Arizona now, same last name. Consider it a birthday present, she says.” Maybe it’s no more than a reaction to Liam’s words, but a chill bursts through the room. Someone along the circle shudders, and as a chain reaction we each free our hands.
Todd resumes DJ duties, and most of the folks from outside return as the lights are raised. Karen and her son are laughing about something, while Derek corroborates Liam’s information. I turn to Marilyn. “Beer?”
She nods, and as we step outside I don’t need to ask if her own reading had been accurate. “Who was she?” I ask instead. It’s gratifying that she knows who I mean, that we understand each other so easily. I fill her cup. She drinks, settles against me.
“My housekeeper, growing up. Like family, really, but then when she got to be old to work she had no one to look after her. My parents let her live in the house, but once she became too infirm they sent her away. I visited her, though, twice a month, for about 5 years before she died. At the end, she couldn’t respond but I read to her anyway.” She sighs. “I loved her so much.” Drinks, and I pull her closer. “And you? Was that your grandfather?”
“Could have been. My father’s name was Gerald, and my grandmother is still living.” I want to kiss her again, but she won’t meet my gaze. “Anyway, they seemed to be right on for everyone. Pretty amazing, I must admit. And that smell? I don’t think it was staged.”
“Yeah, me neither. Pretty good show, if so. And I should know.” She smiles, slipping back into character for a moment. I kiss the top of her head.
“How late can you stay?” I ask. Marilyn breathed deeply, and I knew it before she spoke.
“I should get going soon. I told some other friends that I’d stop by. As much as I’d like to stay, I really can’t.” Too good to be true. I hug her again, and it didn’t matter that we weren’t alone. There wouldn’t be another chance. Her tongue found mine first, tentative, parting my lips at the corner of my mouth. We kiss until we can’t breathe, and then again, a flurry before parting.
I find myself alone at the keg, watching as Liam and Karen pack up their stuff. Liking them made my decision that much tougher. I still felt obligated to Hector, and had only a few days to make up my mind.
“Okay,” I tell him, “This is how I see it. If the thing disappears, he’s going to figure out that it was you.” Hector sits on the edge of my desk. I’d been working on a proposal for a game based on a dragon movie. Had finished reading the script, and had started to think about possible aspects of gameplay, when Hector had interrupted.
“That’s why you have to take the whole book. That way, even if he misses it, he can’t pin it on me. xxxx, I was there the whole time, under his gun, anyway. You just have to say you’re going for a sandwich or something, grab it and go. Ditch it somewhere and come back, if you want. I don’t care.”
I turn away from the computer. “This kinda sucks, Hector.”
“Why? What the xxxx does it really matter? Everyone wants to be so xxxx moral, all the time. You just don’t want to get caught, to get punished for anything. That’s all it is. It’s a xxxx piece of paper. I told him what to draw, and he drew it, put it on my skin, and by all rights it should be mine if I want it.” I’d never seen Hector so worked up. “It’s not like it’s going to cause Liam any xxxx pain by losing a sketchbook.”
“How would you feel if you lost a portfolio, or something?” I ask.
“I’d live. I’d draw more. I’ve lost xxxx before, and yeah, it stings, but you go on. Most of that book is flash art, anyway. He won’t even think twice about it.” He didn’t have to say it, but I knew what he was thinking. I owed him. He’d been ready to pound someone if it’d come to that, and that’s the bargain I needed to uphold.
“Okay, okay. Okay. Fine. xxxx stupid, if you ask me. Today?” Saved the notes I’d made, pushed back from the desk.
“Let’s go now, dog, get this done.”
Out on the mall, neither of us spoke. Made it to the waterfront before Hector broke the silence. “Thanks. I don’t know why this bugs me so much, but it does. It’s my idea, I don’t want it on anyone else’s body.”
“Why didn’t you draw it yourself? You’re good.”
“I’m alright, but not nearly in the same class as Liam. Besides, tattoo art and the xxxx I draw don’t mix. I use too many lines. That’d all bleed together with ink. I just told him what I wanted, and he turned it out perfect. Perfect for me, man. Not for anyone else.”
“Whatever, you don’t need to convince me anymore.” I’d decided I’d hang out for a bit, then use the lunch excuse to snag the book and go. Liam meets us outside, finishes his cigarette, and as soon as we enter I spot the book. Once again, the smell of the inks fills the room, inducing a craving for a new tattoo of my own.
“So you want to do the reds today, right?” Liam asks. Hector nods.
“Yeah, maybe some oranges and yellows too for the mane. Color it up a little.”
“Cool, alright.” He dips the needles into the ink, starts the gun. “Had a good time at your party,” he tells me. “Thanks again for having us over.”
“Sure thing. The séance went over pretty well, was a good addition.”
“Cool, cool. Karen’s pretty tuned in. Was a good energy there, so that helped. Plus the holiday, of course.” Switches from red to orange, from the mane to the tail. I feign a sudden interest in the clock.
“xxxx, Hector, I’ve got to eat and get back in time for that meeting. I’m going to have to catch you later.” Neither looks up as I turn to go. “Good to see you again, Liam.”
“You too,” he tells me, and then I’m out of the room, into the next, and I’ve got the book. I keep going, without a look back and it’s not until I’m a block away that I check to make sure I’ve got the right one. I have. For whatever it’s worth, we’re even.
I head back to work, but go out of my way to swing by home first. Too much chance Derek would spot it at my desk. There’s already a paranoia settling in my gut. It’s not enough that I lock the book inside my house, I hide it, too. I know I don’t want to keep it. Let Hector dispose of the evidence on his own.
At least there’s work to do through the afternoon, as it keeps my mind off what I’ve done. Even so, my mind wanders. I can’t help thinking that Liam’s not someone to mess with, that he or Karen knew the culprit immediately. Occasionally it’s hard to concentrate, and when Hector doesn’t return to the studio it’s difficult to contain myself. I need to talk to someone. I’m looking out the windows, hoping to spot Hector’s return, hoping he’s alone. Finally it’s time for home, and I give him a call.
“Hey, how come you didn’t come back?” I ask. “I want to give you your xxxx.”
“It’s cool, I’m tired, I’m going to crash early. Just take it to work tomorrow and I’ll take care of it then. Don’t worry about it. Like I said, he probably won’t even notice for days, if at all. By then, it could have been anyone that came or went from there. No sweat. Thanks again, man. You really came through.”
“Hm, ok, I guess. You still okay with this? We could mail it back to him, or something.”
“No, no, it’s done now. It’s all cool.”
“Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Hang up, shuffle the CDs, and consider dinner. There’d been talk of meeting at the Red Door after work, but I didn’t have the energy to go out. Not much appetite, either. I spend most of the night waiting for Liam to knock on the door, or for the phone to ring. Neither happens, and eventually, I manage to sleep.
Hector and I made the exchange the next day. My debt for the book, mission accomplished. His tattoo looked good, brought to life by the red, orange and gold that he’d added to the mane and tail. Pretty impressive, how Liam had managed to make the inks glow, neon up and down Hector’s arm. A few weeks later, I’d gotten some work done myself, had come away pretty happy with a type of nuclear phoenix between my shoulders. A distance had developed between Hector and myself, and when our contracts for the game ended most of us went our separate ways. I found myself back in Colorado, and several months had passed when the envelope had arrived in the mail.
It was a bit oversized, and I didn’t recognize the return address. Two pictures had fallen out, and a short note. I checked the photos first, saw Hector posing with his arms crossed. I looked again. No tattoo. No tattoo. I looked again. No tattoo. Read the note: “Check it out, dog. The inks bled from my skin, a little at a time, until there was nothing left. xxxx! Freaked me out! How’s yours? Thought you should know, Hector.”
How’s yours? How is mine, I’d wondered, and looked in the mirror. Unchanged. Bright as new. I’d felt suddenly relieved, absolved, and curious about how much Liam had really known. About how he’d been able to do what he’d done, and which of us had manifested the most faith.
One thing I knew for certain: it hadn’t been Hector.