Monday, June 6, 2011

On the Road Again -- Section 05 (Still very out of order)

[I only have a vague idea where this part goes in the story. It's after the chase on the mountain, but before lots of other stuff.

[I'm trying to write whatever section seems most exciting to me next, so that's what I wrote. For all three of you still following this, I hope you enjoy.]

    “You look thoughtful,” said Gretchen.
    I realized I’d been staring at the sink. “I guess I just admire your fixtures.”
    “Thanks. I try to keep in shape, but no matter how much you compliment my body, we’re not getting back together.”
    I grinned at her. “Who says I’d take you? We’re much better friends now that we’re divorced.”
    She smiled, but it was a smile with clipped wings. “I suppose that’s true, isn’t it.”
    She didn’t say all the other things she could have said, like how she’d tried for years to make our marriage something special, then how she’d hung on for years after in the hope it might become something at least tolerable, then how she’d hung on longer as my own personal rehab worker.
    I picked up my dishes and walked over to the sink. I plugged one side and started running the water in, as hot as I could manage. “I did bring some good things to the marriage, didn’t I?”
    Gretchen slid her dishes and glass onto the counter next to me and pulled a dish towel off a little magnetic bar stuck to the refrigerator. “Want a real answer, or do I get to make a joke?”
    “You’ve earned a thousand jokes. Ten-thousand.”
    “That’s sweet of you. But now I can’t think of anything funny. I’ll have to make do with a real answer.”
    I shrugged and drizzled in soap. Gretchen thought for a long moment. I wondered why I had asked her that, after so long. I realized I really did want to know the answer. I wanted to believe that I’d brought something more than misery to our marriage. I know I’d thrown in my half of the genetics for our children, but that part of being a father is the easiest part. What had I ever done for Gretchen? Anything worth looking back on? A gravedigger makes holes and fills them, but in the end he’s helped put something to rest. Had I given Gretchen any rest?
    I started washing the dishes as she thought. The water was slightly too hot on my hands, but it felt good. I rinsed the first plate, handed it to Gretchen, and stole a look at her face. There were wrinkles there that I’m sure hadn’t been there twenty years ago, but I couldn’t remember that young face anymore. Gretchen had become this in my mind, mistress of a small piece of tranquility, smooth water in rough seas.
    “You love our daughter,” she said finally. “Both our daughters. You loved them both in a deeper way than I ever could.”
    I stopped washing. “That’s not true.”
    “Yes it is.”
    I felt mad. “You’re doing it again. You did this while we were married, too. You’re making yourself less than you are. If you were the Venus de Milo you’d break your own arms off.”
    “It’s true, Lance. You loved our daughters more than I ever could.” She wasn’t looking at me. She was holding the plate, half dry. “I saw it in you from the moment Bonnie was born, from the time you held Samantha. You loved them with everything from your toenails to your earwax.”
    “That’s kind of disturbing.”
    “Shut up, Lance. I’m giving you a real answer, and if you don’t shut up I’m not saying it. Not now, not ever again.” She still wasn’t looking at me, which was strange for Gretchen. She’s one of those people who makes eye contact, even when, as a guy who’s not known for his emotional openness, I find it completely unnecessary. That got my attention more than her telling me to shut up. Being cut off by my wife was something I’d grown used to, and usually appreciated after the fact. Sometimes well after the fact. She went on. “You held our daughters and your heart was naked. You looked at them like a drowning man looks at land. You were--you were in love, Lance. You were never in love with me that way, and I hated it. I was jealous. An ugly, ugly jealousy, and I hated myself for it, and I hated you for making me that way, and so sometimes, when I should have held you close, I let you walk away, because your daughters loved you back the exact same way. They loved being your land. I told myself that they would love me, too, and they did, but there was a difference. There still is. Bonnie came with me, but only because she knew you were coming, too.”
    “That’s not true,” I said again.
    “Believe what you want,” said Gretchen, wiping the towel over spots of water already dry. “I know what I saw, I know what I felt, and I need to apologize. You brought real love to our family. It was a bit of heaven, and I couldn’t love you for it.”
    I opened my mouth, closed it, and started washing a glass. “I brought a bit of hell, too.”
    She nodded. “There was that.”
    “I did love our daughters. Do. I do love them.”
    “I know that. Look what you gave up for them.”
    That drove a small screwdriver of guilt into my intestines, but I kept it off my face, I think. “It wasn’t much.”
    “You’re right,” she agreed. “Just everything.”
    I half laughed, a puff of old despair and new craving. “Yeah. Just that.” And in spite of giving it up, here I was, back into that old addiction again. But it was different this time, I told myself. Not riding the souls I was holding bound to my soul--not even the dark one that I kept to tightly tied. They were my unlikely bedfellows, a disturbing image, especially when I thought about Annabel laying next to me behind the bushes on the mountain. Four to a bed is too many by two. Not that I would be sleeping with Annabel. Same age as my daughter, I reminded myself.
    “I didn’t mean for it to be that way,” I said. “I wasn’t trying to come between you and our daughters.”
    She shook her head and took the glass from me. “You didn’t. Looking back, I think there was room for me there, too, but I was frightened. You were so hungry for them, I was almost afraid you might turn that hunger toward me, too.” It was her turn to laugh without meaning the smallest part of it. “Jealous of the same thing that frightened me. My own fault. You deserved better.”
    I started to disagree but stopped myself, knowing she didn’t want that from me. “We probably all deserve better,” I said instead.
    “But you stuck with me.”
    “Of course. I’d promised I would.”
    I let my hands sit in the hot water and looked at her. “That promise cost you a lot, though.”
    “Real promises always do.”
    “Sure, but when do you stop? When does a promise become too much? What if another promise comes up? A promise to care for someone else, maybe.”
    Gretchen blinked at me. “Those are contradicting questions.”
    “Sure they are.”
    “Where are you going with this?”
    I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to apologize for breaking my promise to her, for taking up necromancy again, even if it were different this time. I suppose I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t really breaking my promise to her--there was just something even more important: taking care of a friends’ daughter. She knew how much I loved our daughters. If I explained, I’m sure she’d--never mind. I was starting to sound trite in my own head.
    “It doesn’t matter. I was just thinking. It wasn’t a bad kind of love, was it? The way I loved our daughters?”
    Gretchen reached up and put her hand on the side of my hair. It was a new gesture. She’d only started doing it since we’d moved back to Colorado, and I liked it. “No, it was a good kind of love. Hungry, but generous at the same time. The kind of love only a person as crazy as you could manage.”
    I wrinkled my nose. “Thanks for that. Speaking of daughters, where’s Bonnie?”
    Gretchen went back to drying. “A boy.”
    “Oh. Of course, those are out there, aren’t they.”
    “A few.”
    “Why hasn’t Bonnie told me about this? Did I do something?”
    “No, silly. This is a very recent thing.”
    “How recent?”
    “Last two days.”
    “That’s okay, then. Maybe. Am I old enough to be calm about this yet? It’s not like it’s the first time she’s been on a date.”
    “Won’t be the last, either.”
    “Is this boy a keeper?”
    Gretchen shrugged. “Too early to tell. I’m not sure I’m a good judge of that, anyway.”
    “Right.” She had picked me, after all. “You think about dating?”
    “Me? No. As I said, I’m not such a good judge on these things.”
    I scrubbed the last of the dinner off the last of the plates. “Sure you are. I turned out all right after a while. You saw something in me and I came around. Eventually.”
    She grimaced. “I’m not sure I can handle the ‘eventually’ again.”
    I drained the water and she finished drying. “You’re smarter now than you were. For example, you didn’t stay married to me. You should find someone. You deserve someone. Bonnie won’t think you’re trying to replace me, if that matters to you.”
    “It does,” agreed Gretchen, “and I think you’re right. In fact, to hear her tell it, I know you’re right. She tried to set me up with her math teacher.”
    “Mr. Jackson?”
    “Well. He’s...skinny.”
    “Very. I politely declined. It didn’t seem appropriate to go out with him before she had finished his class.”
    “That’s a convenient excuse.”
    Gretchen made a noncommittal noise. She hung up the towel and I dried my hands on it.
    “Thank you for dinner,” I said.
    “Thank you for paying child support,” said my ex-wife.
    “It’s a good excuse to come by.”
    She nodded. “Yes, it is.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

On the Road Again -- Section 04 (which is really 2b)

[A much longer section. Don't know what to say about it, but sometimes trying to be a nice guy is an awkward thing.]

    I didn’t have to pull so hard anymore. In fact, she was running ahead of me. Part of me was laughing that the same girl who had been ready to go down into a cabin of crazy shaman-wanna-be’s with nothing more than a handgun was now outpacing me, and I go running regularly. Well, semi-regularly.
    There was enough moon to see by, and the underbrush was sparse in this area, so she was able to keep a pretty straight course, but it was a course in the wrong way if we wanted to get off the mountain alive.
    “Left!” I called to her.
    She glanced back at me and I pointed on the angle. I was starting to get winded, but the Pine Dogs aren’t the most subtle of men when they hunt, and their howls dug down straight through my stomach into my legs and pushed me ahead. The night was strange with silver and shadow, dips that looked deep punching up shallow under my feet, other patches collapsing down under my weight. I felt a stab up through my back muscles with one particularly off misstep and, when I didn’t swear, I realized that Gretchen had really done wonders with my head in the years we’d been married.
    I also realized there was something I could do about the uneven terrain. I tried to let my breathing fall into a steady rhythm, told the passengers in my head to be nice and quiet, and I reached out to the spirits of the mountain.
    For a double handful of heartbeats there was nothing, which was usual. Natural spirits had never been my forte, which said more about me than about nature, I’m guessing. I gave it time, though--as much time as you can give when running up a mountain and toward a very dubious safety--and my patience paid off. At first I felt the flickering, quick animal spirits around me, hidden in the pines and aspens like still flames, quick and pure and uncomfortable against my mind like a lick of oil. I had come to realize years ago that animal spirits and I would never manage more than an uneasy peace that comes from pretending the other doesn’t exist. I ignored them, caught a quick few breaths, then hissed out slowly between my teeth. It was painful trying to do all this while running up a slope, but downhill was not an option--well, at least not my favorite option. As some great man said, he who turns and runs away, lives to fight another day. Unless that was from some movie.
    My deeper breathing and further patience paid off. Suddenly, like a rising flood of deep mountain green, I felt the spirits of the slope’s plant life lift up and surround me. Me breath evened out and my steps became more sure. Step here, through the tight branches there that suddenly weren’t so tight, another pace here, breathe in, breathe out. I felt the heart of an old, old pine flicker at me with all the curiosity that ancient wood can muster, then it settled back into the quiet sway of the night. It wasn’t much--compared to Takugara, I’ve got all the finesse with plants that a wrecking ball has with concrete--but it was enough. I caught up with Annabel in time to put a hand under her elbow as she stumbled. She would have recovered just fine, I’m sure, but I felt a strange rush of manly pride in being there at just the right moment--ah, not manly pride: fatherly pride. Hm, not just fatherly pride. The other that was riding inside me had also noticed how attractive Annabel was, but that was a not of emotion I would have to sort out later. In some ways my life had been easier when any spirits I brought back from the road had just been food and cannon fodder.
    The emotions inside me were in harmony, though, all seeking to protect Annabel, all at one with the flora surrounding me and my companions, and I heard the sound I’d been hoping for: the stream. Heavy snowpack and spring rains meant the countryside was waterlogged, and that water seeped out of the pores of the mountain and into the streams like blood into icy veins. It would be cold, I knew, but it was our best chance to avoid a fight, and that was my top priority. I could probably handle myself all right, but I had no idea how good Annabel was with that gun, and I didn’t want to have to find out. Get home, get safe, figure out the time and place to fight later, if at all.
    My manly pride and natural harmony lasted for another three strides before it all evaporated as the muddy stream bank crumbled out from under us, dropping us into the stream that was rougher, higher, and much closer than I had expected. How had I missed it? My moment of mental shock disappeared into a rough moment of extreme physical shock as the freezing water crushed my arms and legs. No, not crushed. Just cold. Extremely cold. Annabel yelped and I hissed, our little frigid duet.
    “Cold!” she said, beginning to struggle to her feet and toward other side. I couldn’t let her. I scrambled to my feet in the thigh-deep water, grabbed her by the shoulder, and pulled her back into and under the silver mirror. She came up spluttering as I dunked myself under. My ears and jaw ached from the cold, and she was saying something to me--apparently outraged, based on the way her forehead crinkled down--but I ignored it and started pulling her upstream, wading against the rough flow of the water.
    “Are you crazy?” She had to shout over the rush of the stream. “We can’t go up this!”
    “But it’s easier to go downstream, so they’ll look downstream.”
    “They’re not going to be looking in this river at ALL!” Her body was starting to shake and her teeth were chattering. “And there’s no way we can go upstream against this.”
    I blinked at her and looked back a the bank where we’d fallen in. I’d managed to pull us a total of perhaps eight feet. “You’re right,” I called at her. “Downstream it is, then.”
    “No way! OUT it is!”
    I shrugged, grabbed her across the front of her shoulders, and pulled us both over backwards into the stream. She kicked against me, but I had about seventy pounds on her and a solid advantage in upper body strength, so I managed to keep us both floating on our backs as the stream carried us down through the dark.
    A drier winter and spring and the stream would have been too shallow for us to float at all. I’d fished up here as a child in a year the flow had been more rocks and mud than it had been water, but my father had insisted, so we’d gone. It was a ‘bonding experience,’ he informed me, and my mother agreed. Go bond with your father. I don’t know why they’d been so keen on bonding that summer. It had been so very, very optional every other year, though I’m not trying to blame my choices as an adult on some kind of parental neglect. There’s a point where my choices became my choices, and one fishing trip one way or another really didn’t matter any more. We hadn’t caught anything.
    This stream was a different beast entirely, and I do mean beast. I didn’t even try to reach out to the spirits of the water; not only is running water particularly disruptive to the life of souls brought back untimely from the Road, but I’m willing to admit that water spirits frighten me. Animals may not like me, but they’re typically straight forward in their desires: feed, fight, flee. People, for all the layers of seeming and civilization that we use to cover over it all, we still are responding to just those same things: feed, fight, flee. Water, though, is unpredictable. Take a ship wreck: you never know what will be sucked down to be buried in the black trenches that are the ocean’s deepest secrets, and what will be thrown up on the shore, miles and miles away. I’d read about a poodle, once, that had arrived in Hawaii on a carton of beer. The owner’s boat had gone down off the coast of California. I couldn’t remember if the poodle had lived or not.
    The point, though, was that water has never been something I’ve understood, let alone been able to control, so I didn’t bother trying. It would have been ideal to float downstream with my feet out front, pushing off any obstacles, and turning the whole thing into a kind of alpine water-slide. Ideal didn’t take into account that I had to keep a struggling teenager from climbing onto the banks and leaving a scent trail for the Pine Dogs to pick up on. So instead of ideal I settled on second best, or fifth best, and tried to keep my eyes back over my shoulder so as to avoid the worst of everything.
    Instead it seemed like everything tried to find me. Things went well enough for the first thirty seconds, with just a bang or two to my calf from rocks tucked out of sight by the flooding. The water was splashing up into my eyes in shadowy sprays and waves, but I kept us in the middle of the flow and I think prevented Annabel from taking any blows. She wasn’t happy with me, from what I could tell--there were a few words I tried to close my ears to, but I could tell that John, inside my head, wasn’t pleased with what he was hearing. Unless he wasn’t pleased with me, but again, some things can’t be done by committee, such as using a stream-become-river to run away from a pack of human hunting dogs.
    That’s when the everything I mentioned started seeking me out. I jerked and flailed as I rock punched up out of the silver sheet of the stream and tried to strike me in the face. With a heroic contortion I managed to twist my body enough to take the blow on the side of my head--not too hard, but not comfortable--and then we were turning sideways to the flow of the stream. I realized I couldn’t do much to shelter Annabel at that angel, so I let go, probably more due to my numbing arms and the pain from the blow than from any real plan. In fact, I was beginning to think that escape by becoming human popsicles was a terrible idea, but it had been the only one I had, and it was too late by that point to do much else.
    The rocks became more plentiful, the stream more rapid in both senses of the word, and it was the best I could do to keep sight of Annabel. Water battered my face, my fingers had either fallen off or become completely numb, and it was one of those times where a wiser, deeper individual might have taken the time to consider the kind of life choices that had brought him to this moment.
    The shallow person that I am, I did my very best to stay alive.
    After something between three minutes and three hours, the water slowed and I pulled my thoughts together long enough for John’s fatherly instincts to kick into overdrive. I did something like an attempt at swimming and turned myself around, looking for the girl I had dumped into the river with me. There she was, pulling herself up onto the bank, thirty feet behind me. It was the same side of the stream that held the Pine Dogs cabins, but I wasn’t going to be picky. Besides, maybe the Dogs would assume that we’d crossed the river, and wouldn’t think to look for us on the same side. Whatever. I was too cold to be picky.
    By the time we were both up on the shore and face to face, my teeth were clacking together and Annabel was glaring at me. I thought about offering her my jacket, but decided that was idiotic. Her whole body was shaking, and another piece of soaked clothing wasn’t going to do much to change that.
    “Why?” She managed to croak the word out through the shakes.
    “They hunt by smell,” I said, shaking right along with her. “Now we’re downwind from them and we’ve washed off our scent in the river.”
    “We froze it off,” she said.
    I tried to nod in agreement, but my head was already quivering so I think I just ended up looking cold. Er. Colder. “We need to get moving. I think there are more cabins down this way.”
    I’m pretty sure Annabel started nodding, but she was facing the same problems I was, her arms wrapped around her body to try to block out the cold and hold in what warmth was left. Thankfully, the evening wasn’t much more than cool. It was just the snowmelt that had stiffened our joints and pounded its way into the marrow.
    “I parked by those cabins,” she said.
    “Why were you uphill from the Pine Dogs?”
    “I figured they wouldn’t expect an attack from uphill when the road is downhill.”
    “There’s a road up above, too. That’s where I parked.”
    “Doesn’t matter.” I swept my hand out, palm up, toward what I figured was the right way to the cabins. I was pretty sure Annabel didn’t want me touching her again so I didn’t offer my arm, even though it was the kind of thing my father had done with my mother. I wasn’t sure if it was out of genuine affection or cold formality, but I’d had it drilled into my head. I stifled that instinct and walked next to her through the cool air.
    Actually, ‘hobbled’ might have been a better word to describe what we were doing. I beat at my chest, trying to get my body warm, but feeling was starting back into my fingers and the impact of the blows stung and ached in my knuckles, all at the same time.
    “So you were going to run down this way after you killed a few?” I was trying to make conversation, though I wasn’t sure why. I don’t think you really need conversation when running for your life. The nicer rules of society might not be so applicable, I’d think.
    “I lost the gun,” said Annabel. “In the water.”
    “Ah.” She hadn’t answered my question, which said to me she hadn’t thought that far ahead. I could understand not planning ahead. I was in the same boat, taking us downhill away from my car. My car that was full of my scent. They might not be able to find me just off of that, but it was a good bet they’d recognize me if we ever met again. If I had any say in the matter, that wouldn’t happen.
    “I think we’re almost there,” said Annabel, pointing at a shape in the moonlight. My brain caught up and recognized it as the A-frame of a cabin, two long slopes that I’d never liked in architecture, just as a general rule. “I think I’m parked near the next one. No, two after that. I don’t know.”
    She was sounding tired, and I knew what she was feeling. I was getting there myself after too little sleep, a ride in a freezing river, an argument with Gretchen, a greenhouse full of dead plants, and, just to be complete, getting buried alive and bringing back two souls with me from the Long Road. I rubbed at my face. I was starting to hear things, too.
    No I wasn’t. There were voices behind us--not the calls of dogs anymore, but voices all the same, and as far as I knew, there wasn’t anyone on this mountain that we wanted to take the chance of meeting.
    “This way,” I said quietly, taking Annabel’s elbow.
    She jerked it out of my grip. I’d been right: she didn’t want me touching her. I pulled my hands back in surrender, up by my shoulders, but then put a finger over my mouth with one hand and waved her toward a clump of bushes with another. Annabel looked skeptical at first, but then her head twisted around as she heard the voices, too, and she followed me quickly. There wasn’t much space between the wall of the cabin and the scrub oak, but there was enough to crawl in--just barely. The gap I had found ended after not much more than my body length. I tried to push a pathway for myself but the branches were too dense.
    “Keep going!” whispered Annabel.
    “I can’t.”
    “I’m out in the open!”
    “I really can’t.”
    She shoved my feet to the side. “I’m coming in.”
    I blinked, John’s soul a shocked silence in my head as my other passenger seemed to radiate amused approval. Annabel grabbed onto my jeans with one hand to pull herself along, and I tried to flatten myself against the cabin and think chaste thoughts. No, I needed to do more than that. If those voices were pine dogs, we needed cover. Helped by a body that was still deciding whether hypothermia were a good idea or not, I valiantly put aside the fact that, for the first time in years, a woman was lying next to me, and tried to still my breathing.
    It didn’t work. “Not there,” I said, wincing.
    “Oh! Did I--”
    “No, you didn’t. Just a bruise.”
    My face felt hot, and I realized I was blushing. Also, feeling was starting to come back into my toes with all the enjoyment of a massage with a pin cushion. Annabel finally settled into place next to me in some parody of thirteen-year-olds dancing, trying to be far apart but, by necessity, closer than arms’ length. I set all that aside again and breathed. Years of habit worked for me, and it wasn’t long before the spirit of the bushes warmed around me in a pale, silvery-green wash. The pain eased out of my fingers and toes and I stopped shaking, a benefit of working with natural things that never came with the darker practices. It became a simple pleasure to lie on the ground, like my soul had eaten enough and was filled. I almost laughed--not a humorous laugh--remembering the dark hunger that was all that ever came with necromancy. I was glad to be rid of that. I wanted it desperately.
    The voices were closer, and with my heightened senses I could see that they were Pine Dogs. Their souls moved like crouching wolves or hunting hounds, frayed at the edges and dripping, pooling away onto the ground but never running out as more darkness bubbled up at the core. There were three of them, pacing through the trees. They weren’t bothering to hide their voices, too excited, too overconfident, to be quiet hunters. Too young. They must have been in their twenties by the sound of their laughter.
    “They’re not down this way,” said one. “Jack and Musk will chase them down across the stream. I’m sure that’s where they went.”
    “Maybe,” said another, a large one with an oversized soul-head that seemed to be dragging along the ground. “But I still say I smelled something this way, so we’re looking.”
    “Whatever,” said the first voice, but there wasn’t much defiance in it. It was clear who was the alpha in this trio. I didn’t get a good view of the third, but I decided it was time to stop looking and start hiding. I pulled the green warmth of the plants’ spirit around me, around Annabel, drew it close and let the feeling of nature and harmony smooth away our scent and our contrary nature as humans. My thoughts went pale and soft, my body calm and ready, my eyes open and alert.
    The hunting trio jogged up toward our hiding place, were there, then were past. Moments slipped away and they came back.
    “There’s something not right here,” said the third voice, and I felt Annabel stiffen ever so slightly next to me. I reached out to her with my thoughts and the slow patience of growing things, and she relaxed again.
    “What do you mean not right?” asked the first voice. I decided to call him Whiny. “I can’t smell anything.”
    “Shut up,” said Cranium, my new name for the alpha, though from what I could tell, he spent more time exercising his physical body than the what passed for brains between his ears, but that soul-head was just too big for me to notice much else. “What are you seeing?”
    The Thinker was paused, looking right at us. “I don’t know. A bush.”
    “A bush?” laughed Whiny. “Get ‘em, boys! It’s a bush!” Whiny yelped as a large fist clipped him on the ear.
    “I told you to shut up.” Cranium looked back at us. “I don’t smell anything, either.”
    “I know,” said Thinker. “But it seems like we should smell something here. Don’t you get that feeling?”
    They might have come closer. They might have pulled back the branches and found us, and then we would have discovered what kind of violence was still wrapped up in bone and iron and buried in my gut behind promises and dreams--dreams of being a good man tangled with dreams of remembered addictions--but they didn’t. A howl went up out in the night and it was only a heartbeat before the trio was running, bounding through trees and over dips, off toward the stream.
    My breath trailed out of my mouth and I let my sense of the plant spirit fade away. I realized that Annabel was pressed along the length of my body, her face against my neck and damp hair under my chin.
    “You’re warm,” she said.
    My hand was on her shoulder and I jerked it away guiltily. I was already certain that John and I would be having a conversation the moment I fell asleep, but I wasn’t going to do anything to make that conversation more difficult that it was already on track to be.
    “We should go.” She nodded against my neck and the last of the cold rushed out of my body in a flood of good, old-fashioned hormones. “We should go now,” I added, and flattened myself against the cabin awkwardly. In fact, awkwardly was the only way of getting us out of this particular arrangement. She’s barely older than my daughter, I thought. But she’s not your daughter, added a voice that might have been helped along by the dark companion in my head.
    I held very still as Annabel worked her way out of our hiding place.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the Road Again -- Section 03

[This is actually more like the REAL section 02, since it comes right after section 01, but I think I'll simply have to post a Google Doc that keeps all the sections in the right order. Or at least in the best order I've got for them so far.

[I do recognize that this story isn't going to be for all of my readers. I recognize that it's not as lighthearted as the other stuff, and I'm sorry if I lose anyone because of that, but I do think this story is the next step for me.

[Anyway, nothing happens in this section. I'm starting to realize that when I feel like that's the case, it's actually a pretty good sign. City of Dreams was an entire book where it felt like nothing happened, and that might be my best so far.]

    I slid off my stool, picked up my bag, and made my way to the door that said ‘STAF  O LY’ in black and gold stickers. I pushed through the door, turned down a short hallway that should have had photographs on the wall but didn’t anymore, and stepped into the bathroom.
    “Teal,” I said out loud to myself. The towels were supposed to be teal, since it coordinated with the tile, but Bela had decorated in a style I might have called ‘Colorblind Bachelor,’ or maybe ‘Grandma’s Leftover Linens.’ Gretchen, my ex, would never have put that color of pink for a hand towel. I’d never seen what the big deal was, one way or the other, until after we had separated. Then, for reasons probably obvious to a psychiatrist, I always needed my towels to match.
    I did the necessaries and flushed. I watched and waited as the water kept trickling into the bowl and the little knob on the toilet stayed down. I guess Bela had never bothered to fix it, either. I reached out and flipped it up, washed my hands, and made my way with my bag to the stairs.
    It was at the top of the stairs that Bela found me, two minutes later. He had his shotgun in one hand and Morzsa in the other. The little dog wasn’t happy to see me--he’s too neurotic to ever be happy, I think--but he also wasn’t scared, which was reassuring. Though I knew I wasn’t riding any souls at the moment, and none were riding me, so I don’t know what I was worried about. A dog can’t be scared of something that’s not there. Well, Morzsa could be, but he wasn’t.
    “I wondered if I’d find you up here,” said Bela. The shotgun wasn’t aimed at me exactly, but it wouldn’t take much for it to get there. “You sure you’re clean, Lance?”
    “Except for your toxic coffee and it’s lifetime supply of caffeine, I’m sober as a saint.”
    “Some of them weren’t too sober, I can promise you. Some were Hungarian.”
    “Even so, Bela, I swear on that shotgun that’s waving around my knees, I’ve got nobody inside me but the soul I was born with.”
    He sniffed. “Which your parents probably picked out in a second-hand shop.”
    I shrugged. “That would explain a lot about me, then, wouldn’t it.”
    “So tell me,” he said, jerking his chin toward the top of the stairs, “why aren’t you already down in the basement?”
    I scratched at my head. “You’ve done some remodeling.”
    “Of course I have. That’s why you gave me the house in the first place, Lance. You wanted me to keep things locked up that should never have been opened in the first place, and doing that takes extra precautions. Also, I needed to make the front of the place into a cafe.”
    “A great choice, by the way.”
    “Thank you.”
    He was staring at me.
    “I swear, I’m clean, Bela. I haven’t been to the Road in years. I promised Gretchen.”
    “And she still wouldn’t stay with you?”
    I grimaced. “Why should she have? I wouldn’t have stayed with me. She needed to move on and find someone new.”
    “Has she?”
    “No. Why? Have you talked with her?”
    “Of course not. I’m still pissed at her for dumping you.”
    I stared at him, and Bela stared right back. Then he sniffed again.
    “You don’t have to do that,” I said. “It’s okay to like her.”
    “I do like her.”
    “So call her up.”
    “She’s a good woman.”
    “Don’t I know it. Better than you by a long shot.”
    “I’m sure she still likes you, too, Bela.”
    “Probably does. But you were my friend first, and whether you’ve forgiven her or not, I’m still pissed, so shut up, turn around, and open the doors. Prove to me there’s nothing riding you.”
    “Don’t you trust me?”
    “Sure, I trust you. You want me to give you a free pass, then?”
    I didn’t even have to think about that. “Here I go, opening the doors.” I slung my bag over my shoulder and shook my hands out. “This is highly disturbing, though.”
    “It’s supposed to be.”
    “You’ll have to do the doors for me on the way back out.”
    “Assuming you pass the sniff test, that is.”
    I looked back at Morzsa. “You doing all right, boy? Your nose working?”
    “Shut up and open the door, Lance. The night isn’t getting any younger.”
    I nodded and turned back to the door, and I winced. “A cross, Bela? You know that’s all psychological.”
    “Possible. But you still haven’t opened it.”
    “That’s because I’m sure I know what’s on the other side, and no, you don’t have to say anything more. I’m opening the doors.”
    Psychological or not, messing with symbols of any religion that frowns on necromancy--which, as far as I know, is pretty much all of them--is hard for a Road Walker to do. There’s something about unnaturally ripping a soul out of its progress to eternal reward, and then feeding off that soul, that doesn’t mesh well with the teachings of most religions. Haven’t met God personally, but I expect that when essentially all religions agree that something is bad, you can figure that God frowns on it.
    I looked at the cross that was carved on the door, touched it with one finger, then grabbed the handle and pulled.
    “Only six more to go,” said Bela.
    “Just six? You made this door out of rowan?”
    “Rowan wood and a cross. I economized.”
    I reached into the dark and flipped on the light switch that I knew was there, the bulb flickering to life on the wall just inside the first door.
    “A crescent on the next door? I’m not even sure that’s an actual religious symbol.”
    I glanced back at Bela, and he just shrugged, then jerked his chin toward the stairs. “Keep going.”
    I felt strange as I opened each door in turn, but I think it was more psychological than anything else, a nostalgic dread for the barriers that before would have been such a pain for me to pass, and I mean that literally. Intense pain, each worse than the last. Souls ripped back from the road unnaturally don’t do well with the harmony of natural things, and each barrier embodied some harmony of the world. Rowan, bone (don’t ask me how he got a bone door), silver (mostly little bits of metal, pounded into the wood), oak, one door that looked like it had been painted in salt crystals, another door that sloshed like it was filled with water (and moved like it, too), and a final door that was more a gate than anything else, made of cold iron. Each one had almost certainly been treated by someone who was either very holy or very strong with the natural spirits of the area, giving each the kind of spiritual glow that made hell for necromancers. For my kind.
    I pushed past the last one, flipped the switch that kicked on the florescent tubes along the ceiling, and waited while Bela closed each door behind him.
    “You satisfied?” I asked.
    “Mostly, yes,” he said. “I think I’m someone who sees the good in life.”
    “I meant do you believe I’m clean.”
    “I believed you from the beginning, Lance. I just wanted you to open the doors so you’d remember the seriousness of what you’re doing.”
    “Her father asked me, Bela. He begged me to help him protect her.”
    “Did he know what he was asking?”
    “I have no idea.”
    “He probably didn’t mean this.”
    “I don’t have the strength to do it any other way. I wish I did. I wish I had a life of virtue to fall back on that would give me the power to do this some other way, but I’ve only got what I know, no matter how messed up that is.”
    “You’re breaking your promise to Gretchen.”
    “She’d understand.”
    “You think?”
    “No. But I’m doing it anyway.”
    “You sure you’re doing it for the right reasons?”
    I suppose he’d had to ask that question. It was exactly the question I’d been avoiding, but it really was the elephant in the room. I thought I was heading back to the road for the noblest of causes, because what are we without our children, right? But maybe I wasn’t. Maybe there was another way to do this. I mean, even the toughest shaman wasn’t immune to a bullet, and the nastiest necromancer still couldn’t do much against good, old-fashioned decapitation. Arm myself--borrow a gun or two, easy enough to do in Colorado--and go in, guns blazing. No, not guns blazing. Quietly. This might not even come to violence. But if it did.
    “I’m pretty fit,” I said.
    Bela shrugged. “Looks like you’re keeping up with things.”
    “I’m also a decent aim.”
    “I’ll take your word for it.”
    “So you tell me: if this comes down to a fight, you think I stand a chance with just that?”
    Bela stared at me for a long, long moment. I wanted him to say I could manage with ‘just that,’ and I wanted him to tell me to climb into the grave, step back onto the Road, to go walking on that Old Way one more time. Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t--hell, I was probably damned by this point no matter what I did, but I wanted to spend the time I had left in this world as well as I could. Was this living well? Was I satisfying my right purpose?
    Bela turned to a work table, set down Morzsa and the shotgun, and looked back at me. “Anyone you bring back just walks with you.”
    “Of course,” I agreed.
    “You don’t ride them, and you make darn sure they don’t ride you.”
    “I don’t know how to answer that, Bela. I’ll do my best.”
    “You just tell me that’s how it will be.”
    I looked him in the eye, and I didn’t know what he was thinking. I couldn’t tell if he were angry or frightened, though I suppose it’s true that those two are never far apart. “That’s how it will be,” I said.
    “Then let’s get this open.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

On the Road Again -- Section 02 ... sort of

[This isn't really the part that comes next in the story--in fact this is a few chapters on, I expect--but it was the next thing that showed up for me to write. It's what I wanted to write next, I guess, which isn't a bad reason to write something. If it's exciting to me, it's more likely to be exciting to my readers.

[Anyway, imagine that Lance has done some snooping, has been to the Long Road and back, has found out who Annabel Fox is looking for, and has followed her up into the mountains around our Rocky Mountain city (somewhere in Colorado, a major metropolis, but not Denver--it's a made-up city), and has tracked her to the slope just above the cabins of the Pine Dogs.]

    “Annabel,” I whispered, guessing that the shadow in the dark was her. Apparently I had guessed right, because she spun around in her crouch, her face catching the light from the moon that was still hanging onto the tops of the mountains, and in the heartbeats after I learned a pair of new things, both jarring like a blow to the ear.
    The first was that Annabel Fox was much better looking than her father. More beautiful than her mother, even, and I’d always admired Maureen--one of those women who make accidental outfits like sweats look like she meant every bit of them. Of course, as I was seeing his daughter for the first time since his death, I’m sure I was picking up more than a little on John’s paternal instincts banging around inside my head, but I had been single and alone long enough to recognize a good jolt of female appeal when I saw it. Her hair was dark--probably just the night--and her face was pale--though everything was pale in the moonlight--but whatever the special effects, the sight of her hit me just below my sternum and my breath went away. For that moment it didn’t matter that I was old enough to be her father, and then an instant later I reminded myself that it did matter (which shook my thoughts out of their rut), and then I learned the other disturbing thing.
    No matter how often I face the end of a loaded handgun, it is always a new experience.
    “I’m a friend,” I said, slowly and calmly, my hands up, palms out. My adrenaline had been solidly pumping since I started sneaking around the Pine Dogs’ compound, but the way the gun was shaking in her hand, facing Annabel gave me a fresh jolt that made my knees shake as I crouched there. “I don’t want to surprise you, but I’m about to kneel down now so that I don’t fall over, startle you, and get shot.”
    “Who are you?” she asked, a whisper that the wind almost covered up as it pushed through the pine branches around us.
    “Dropping to my knees now,” I whispered back, still valiantly hanging onto my shaky crouch. “Don’t shoot...and...there.” I eased down into some strange fake-Japanese bow of surrender. “Like I said, I’m a friend. Lance Graywall. I did work for your mom and dad--all the plants and things around your funeral home. I run a greenhouse on the East side of town called Every Living Thing. It’s not much, but,” I shrugged, “it keeps me eating. Gas in the car. Stuff like that.” Why was I telling her about my greenhouse? Details about life are trustworthy, I decided, though I could have been lying and how was she to know? “Point is, I’m here to help you.”
    “You want to kill these guys, too?” she asked, and her face made me want to cry. She was angry--rage was painted across her face in broad strokes from a dark brush--but she was also terrified, the deep kind of fear that crawls into your heart and dies there, and rots, and never leaves. I knew that fear.
    “Not that kind of help. You don’t want to kill these idiots.”
    Her grip on the gun tightened. “Yes, I do.”
    I wrinkled my nose. “Nah. You don’t, not really, but don’t misunderstand. I’m not criticizing here. You fully intend to go after the people who killed your parents, and I can respect that. You’ve got the heart of a fighter. Props to you.”
    She blinked in the moonlight, dry lids over damp eyes. “You’re an idiot,” she said.
    I leaned back. “That’s a rather abrupt judgment, don’t you think?”
    “I’m not a fighter. I just have to do this.” Someone in the cabin behind her laughed, a loud, bragging sound, and Annabel started to turn away.
    “Fine,” I said, grabbing her attention back with my voice. “So you’re not a fighter. You’re just smart. You see a threat and you know that you need to get rid of it, or you think the police won’t get them so it’s up to you, or whatever it is, this is what you feel you have to do. Justice prevails, God speed the right, and that is probably all true, but I’m not here to help you kill them.”
    “Then go away.”
    “I can’t.”
    “Why not?”
    “I promised your father.”
    I could hear John talking at me, that pressure somewhere in the back of my frontal lobe that is a sure sign that the riding dead are upset. I was probably doing this all wrong, at least from the perspective of Annabel’s loving father, but there are some things I figure you just can’t do by committee, and right then I decided that talking a homicidal teen down off a mountain was definitely not group work.
    Annabel’s mouth was tight. “They killed my parents.”
    I nodded. “I saw it.”
    She was shaking her head. “No, they didn’t just kill them. They tore them apart. I couldn’t tell which parts were my parents and which were already corpses and--” She wasn’t seeing me anymore, and the mountain around us was gone, too, I knew. She was in the grip of images that she’d be sharing with her therapist for years to come and we didn’t have time for her to be there just then. Of course, doing something dramatic like a firm slap was out of the question, seeing how that would likely get me shot. I toyed with that idea for a moment longer even so, just because I’d always wondered how well a slap would actually work, but my instinct for self-preservation finally pushed that aside. (Besides, she was just a pair of years older than my daughter, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to hit her.)
    I decided to try something a little less extreme. “Hey, babe,” I said.
    Her eyes snapped into focus and she glared at me.
    “I know,” I went on, “you’re not my babe in any sense of the word, but I needed your attention. I don’t have the right answers for you right now. In fact, I admit that part of me would be delighted to head in there with you and grind those pathetic bits of rot into rot paste.” Annabel looked puzzled, and I admit, I was confused by what I was saying, too, but momentum was the key in a situation like this; not what you say so much as the tone of voice. “Maybe we’d get one, or two, or five, but we wouldn’t get any more than that, and then the rest would be all over us like a pack of wild dogs.” I didn’t try explaining how exactly like a pack of wild dogs they would be. “So even if I can’t convince you to drop this all together, at least don’t do it now. Come back with me, we’ll talk about it, and then do it smart. There’s no rush in all this. Take the time to do revenge right, and then have the best revenge of all: outlive the sons of bitches.” I cringed a little at my choice of words, knowing Gretchen would have been after me for it, but I figured it was a technical description more than an actual cuss word, so I was okay.
    Annabel was staring at me and the gun had sagged down so it wasn’t aimed so directly at my chest anymore, which I took as a good sign. Also, the pressure from John on the inside of my brain was gone, so I suppose I must have done something right. When I thought about what I’d said, I realized that I had just tacitly agreed that his daughter should commit premeditated murder, but I was guessing that John understood what kind of extreme circumstance I was in and was waiting for his daughter’s answer.
    “You’ll help me kill them later?” she finally asked.
    I shook my head. “I can’t promise that. I have...issues with killing.”
    Her gun was back up. “But you said you wanted them dead.”
    “Believe me, I do.” As I said it, I realized just how powerfully that was true. It wasn’t just  John’s anger at his own murder, or the other voice I’d locked up in my soul, the dark voice I’d carried with me out of the dark road the way an alcoholic hides away a bottle, just in case--it was more. It was anger at myself, at what I had been and what I still was, and the panic that I might become all that again, become like these idiot children in the mountains, obsessed with their rights to power and land and dominance, absurd, childish rights to rule over a kingdom made up of bones and blood and misery. They were hungering after a food that could only make them hungrier still and I wanted to feed them with their own violence until they chocked on it, gagged on it, and vomited up the lives of every soul that they’d taken in their meaningless, mindless war. They looked so small to me, rabbits in their cabin cage, laughing, probably drunk, and I could come to them like an angel out of Hell, and I could make their every wish for violence come true.
    I blinked twice, hard, and rubbed at my face. “I want them dead, Annabel, but that’s one cup you can’t un-drink. Leave it for another day. For now, let’s get off this mountain and back into daylight, and then we can think it through. If you decide to come back, I’ll make sure you come back prepared. I promise you that much.”
    I looked her in the eyes when I said it, and I can’t imagine what she saw--a bit of her father peaking out, maybe?--but whatever it was, it was just enough. The gun aimed down at the ground and brittle edge of ice went out of her posture. She leaned against the rough trunk next to her and let out a long, rough breath.
    “Fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”
    I felt relief for a moment, and then that moment was gone. Really gone. I realized I wasn’t feeling the wind in my face anymore. My hair was caught in the breeze, licking at the edges of my face, as the air rushed past us, down the mountain slope.
    Toward the cabin of the Pine Dogs.
    I lurched up to my feet, scratching my face on the low pine branches and not caring, grabbing Annabel’s arm and pulling her up after me.
    “Just do it. Up we go.”
    “Did something happen?” She was pulling at me, looking back down toward the cabins of her parents’ killers.
    “It’s about to,” I said. “Please hurry.”
    “What is going on?” she demanded, which, I suppose, was as good a time as any for the howling to start.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On the Road Again -- Section 01

[Yes, Accidental God has been completely derailed over the last month or so. Honestly, I don't know how to fix it, and I may just push through and write something, but I was not writing and not writing and not writing, so Tuesday I finally started writing something. Just something. I didn't know what it was, or where it was going, but by Thursday I had a pretty complete novel idea sitting in front of me. There's romance, intrigue, a chihuahua.

[Also, the story is looking to be a bit grittier than my others. I know, I'm trying all that again, and it may fail completely, but I guess I just have to keep trying to write it.

[Anyway, as usual, read this blog at your own risk. I may never finish anything that shows up on here, but I'll try to keep writing and I hope you'll enjoy what you do read.]

    There are seven ways into the Long Road. The quickest and most obvious way is to die. That's how most people arrive: car crash, knife in the alley, cancer. They're all a trip to the Long Road, fast or slow.
    The second and third ways involve variations on elaborate rituals, candles, incense, three of the Eight Great Names of Hell, and a goat. Not to worry, the goat is fine when it's all over.
    The fourth and least dangerous way is to find a door. I didn't have time to find a door, considering that they move sideways, slantways, and upside down if a body breathes on them too heavily, making a man as likely as not to send one skittering off like a crab as soon as he’s found it, and I was on a deadline.
    Six and seven are not an option for me, not since my early twenties--at least not if I wanted to keep on living. That's another story.
    So that left me with number five.
    "What would you like?" asked Bela. That's 'Bay-lah,' and it's a boy's name. He's got the kind of hands that wrap around a watermelon and have a little to spare. That night they were wrapped around a order pad.
    “Something with lots of caffeine,” I answered.
    “That stuff will kill you.”
    I shrugged. “Lots of things could do that. Guns, plastic bags, my ex-wife.”
    Bela twisted his mouth, giving my joke more courtesy than it deserved. My ex-wife is actually a very nice woman, much nicer than I am. For example, she would never do what I was about to do.
    “I also need to use your grave,” I said.
    Bela blinked. “Now THAT is something that could kill you.”
    I looked him in the eye. “It might. Probably will one of these days. But I made someone a promise.”
    Bela leaned across the counter in his diner--a classic kind of place, all chrome and soda fountains, a juke box in the corner, the buttons covered over by a piece of paper and the black marker words, Out of order, unless you know how to fix me. Bela ignored his other customers, though they were used to that. At Bela’s you got served when you got served, or you went someplace else where the food is fast and they give a banana-cream-pie about customer service.
    “You’re scaring me, Lance.”
    “Come on. I know what I’m doing. You know that as well as anybody.”
    “That’s the problem. You start walking down that Road again, you can’t be sure what you might wake up.”
    I grimaced, remembering some of the things I had awakened on my trips down the Road--the Weird Road, the Eldritch Path, the Cold Way, and a dozen other names. I’d left my finger behind once--ring finger, along with my wedding ring--all in the mouth of something with five extra mouths, a creature that had been a man once but had become a thing of scales and hunger. Another horror had a piece of my calf, and my hair was white even though I haven’t hit forty yet, thank you very much. I was still a very solid thirty-nine. Thirty-nine and still insane, I guess.
    “Whatever shows up, I can handle it.”
    “I’m not worried about the things on the Road,” said Bela, and he reached out a finger, poking me roughly in my sternum.
    “Ouch,” I said, since it seemed appropriate.
    “I’m worried about what you might wake up inside--”
    “I got it,” I said, pushing his hand away. “You don’t have to be so dramatic. I’ll be careful about that, too.”
    “An alcoholic doesn’t take care by walking into a bar.”
    “And I’m about to drown myself in whisky. Yeah, I understand, but you weren’t listening, Bela. I made someone a promise.”
    He stared at me longer, one of my oldest friends who knew me back when I thought I owned the world. Who knows? Perhaps I could have owned a decent sized piece of it if I hadn’t had a child, if my wife hadn’t left me, if I hadn’t woken up.
    “You’ll be careful?”
    “Come on, Bela. How should I know? I haven’t been back in three years. I don’t know if I’ll come out with the brain power of a zucchini, or if I’ll slip down that long hill back to where I was, or if whatever comes back will look like me but won’t be me--”
    “You’re starting to babble.”
    “This is worth babbling about.”
    “It is, but you shouldn’t worry too much. If it’s not you coming back, I’ve got a shot gun.”
    I stared at him. “I feel comforted.”
    “You’re welcome.”
    “How do I let you know that it IS me?”
    “You think I won’t be able to tell?”
    “Might not.”
    He grunted. “I suppose that’s possible. In that case I’ll have Morzsa come with me.”
    “Sounds smart.” Morzsa is his dog, a little sneeze of a thing that fits in half of his hand. I guess the little hiccup’s name means ‘crumb,’ but Bela told me he didn’t name it because of the size. Apparently every dog he had growing up was named Morzsa. A Hungarian thing, from what Bela said. Also, Morzsa has a talent for being very frightened. Not of everything; just of the right things.
    “If you have Morzsa, I won’t feel too nervous about the shotgun. Of course, if something does manage to come back riding me, the shotgun might not be enough.”
    Bela looked disgusted. “I’m not new to this dance, Lance. I might even be able to teach you a few steps.”
    “MIght,” I agreed and shut my mouth, looking around the diner. “Place needs mopping.”
    “I could use an extra pair of hands,” said Bela, and that was that. He went off to grab me coffee--foul stuff, but a step up from what I used to do to my body--and we stopped talking about what I’d be doing later. That was the nice thing about Bela: he’d beat you over the head to make a point, but he wouldn’t break his bat doing it.
    My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I always keep the thing on vibrate since I can’t seem to find a single ring tone I want to hear more than twice. I pulled it out and answered, not recognizing the number.
    “This is Lance.”
    “Lance Gravel?” asked a woman’s voice, somewhere in her fifties, I figured, or maybe just a smoker. Maybe both.
    “Graywell,” I corrected her, “but yeah, that Lance. Is this the Rabbit?”
    “Sure is, honey. How can I help you?”
    “There’s a girl I need to find.”
    “Yes, but not mine. A friend’s.”
    “And is this friend’s daughter in trouble?”
    Bela slid my coffee in front of me and I nodded my thanks. “Might be. Right now she’s an angry kid, and I want to find her before she does anything stupid.”
    “Typical teenager,” said the Rabbit with a laugh that turned into a hacking cough, so I figured I wasn’t too far off with my smoker guess. “They’re like puppies, have to eat all their food right now, scatter it over the kitchen floor, and it’s the grownups who have to come after with a broom.”
    “Right,” I said, mostly because I didn’t know what else to say. “So you can help?”
    “Of course, hon, but I assume you called me for a particular reason. You don’t find the Rabbit to help with something the police are better suited for, now do you?”
    I thought about two or three ways I could answer that, all of which were sarcastic and none of them helpful. I suppose I was starting to get on edge. I needed to get down to Bela’s grave soon to have the time for what I needed, and the idea of what I was planning was starting to eat at my mind the way bleach eats at your scalp.
    I went with the simple answer. “No,” I said. “You call the Rabbit if you need news about the Twilight World, and that’s what I need. The girl’s name is Annabel Fox.”
    “Oh, honey!” Her voice sounded shocked. “Those Foxes?”
    “What’s that girl doing? She isn’t trying to pick a fight!”
    “I think so.”
    “She’s stepping into a war!”
    “That’s what I hear.”
    There was silence for a while. I didn’t have more to say, and I figured the Rabbit needed a little time to decide if she was interested in helping me or not. I knew I was asking her to start poking at a beehive, but from what I’d heard, if anyone could keep the bees quiet, it was the Rabbit.
    “How old is the girl?” she asked after a while.
    “Nineteen, I think.”
    “You don’t know?”
    “Never met her, actually. I know the parents from work. I’d helped them with the gardens around their funeral home.”
    “You do landscaping?”
    “Run a plant nursery and greenhouse. Working with living things is good for me.”
    “Which nursery?”
    “Every Living Thing, on California.”
    “Right. The new place, isn’t it?”
    “I just moved here two years ago,” I admitted. “Following my own daughter.”
    “Huh,” she said, and we sat in silence for a moment more. “Two years is plenty to know what you might be getting into, am I right?”
    “You’re right.”
    “You know that picking a fight with either gang can be bad for your health.”
    “I’ll be prepared.”
    “The girl already killed one of them, didn’t she.”
    “From what I hear, but I’ve stayed out of this war so I don’t know which side she’s picking a fight with.”
    “Well,” said the Rabbit. “Well, well, well. I’ll help you find her. I’ll help that far, but no further. I’ve got a husband, two horses and a cat to take care of, and I’m not sticking my neck out for revenge.”
    “It’s for a girl,” I corrected her. “A frightened, angry girl.”
    “You say it however you like, hon, but I call it like I see it, and I want no part of it. I find her, I tell you where she is, and you take over from there. I wash my hands of all this. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”
    I turned my coffee mug in front of me, leaving a small arc of water behind it. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this,” I said, “to visit the fatherless.”
    “Don’t you go quoting scripture at me, necromancer,” said the Rabbit. “Yes, I know who you are. I asked my questions about the new greenhouse, don’t think I didn’t. I find her, and I expect to get paid. I’m not stepping closer to this war without a fat paycheck to go with it.”
    “How much?” I asked.
    “What?! Just for information?”
    “Three, or go find yourself another oracle, and there ain’t no other oracle with ears as long as the Rabbit. Besides, I know you’ve been keeping to yourself out on the edge of town. You don’t know the innards of city at all, and so if you want to find little Miss Fox before she does herself a harm, you’d better find another guide and fast--or cough up the three-thousand.”
    Three-thousand. Actually, it was less than I was afraid it might be, but still more than I had sitting around. Maybe a little creative bookwork with the greenhouse would do it.
    “Fine,” I said, “though I might move in with you if I can’t make my mortgage payment.”
    She snorted. “Half in cash by tomorrow. You know where?”
    “Sure,” I said. “I’ll get it there.”
    The call cut off and I looked over at Bela who was waiting expectantly. “How did it go?” he asked.
    “She started out friendly then got angry.”
    “Sounds like her,” said Bela. “For all her talk, she scares pretty easily, and it’s not much of a trip to stumble from fear to anger. Not sure why she stays in this business, if it causes her so much anxiety.”
    “She charges enough, just for a bit of information.”
    “Information about a war.”
    I took a sip of my coffee. Terrible stuff, but I hate the flavor of energy drinks even more, and I needed to be a bit wired. Bela was right. It was information about a war. “I never should have moved here,” I said.
    “I thought you were following your ex-wife?”
    “She never should have moved here.”
    “But it’s her home town. Your home town, too, if you remember.”
    I shrugged. “True, but things weren’t like this twenty years ago. The place was safer.”
    Bela made a sound somewhere between a snort and rice shaking in a bucket. “Maybe safer after you left.”
    I bobbed my eyebrows. “Maybe safer for the ladies.”
    Bela looked at me. “Sure. We’ll go with that.”
    I grimaced as I took another swallow of coffee. “I am trying to make up for it, Bela. It’s not much, but I’m trying. I still can’t figure out how Susan managed to stay with me as long as she did.”
    “Some of us can’t figure out why she married you in the first place.”
    I pointed my finger at him, opened my mouth, then closed it. “You’ve got a point.” If I’d been asked, I couldn’t have told you why she’d married me either, though I’d thought I’d known when I was nineteen. I’d been like a god in my own eyes then, Hades just discovering that he had his own kingdom and it was good to be king.
    “Let me know when you’re ready,” said my friend, and he walked off to help someone else. Bela’s place is an all-night diner, so he gets everything from regulars to crazies in there, but that night it was pretty light on the crazies, by which I mean that everyone there looked like they’d had a bath in the last day or so. All as normal as normal gets, except for maybe me. I stared at the last few swallows of my coffee and I couldn’t get myself to drink it. Bela called an order over to his cook--Shauna, a cute thing wandering her way through community college a class or two at a time--and came around the counter to sit on a stool next to me, leaning on his elbows.
    “You don’t like my coffee?” he asked.
    “I hate it.”
    “Then why order it?”
    “You know why.”
    “Because you’re stupid.”
    “Pretty much.”
    “The Foxes’ girl?”
    “How were the parents?”
    “As good as could be expected. In shock. We didn’t have much time to talk.”
    Bela wrinkled his nose. “These gang wars are bad business. I’ve even heard that the police are calling the Feds.”
    “Our fair city about to get a visit from the Esoteric Crimes Division, is it? That’ll be lovely. I wonder if there will be anyone I know.”
    “I think you should count on that. Count on it, and be careful. You should avoid any misunderstandings.”
    “I’ll keep that in mind.” I spun my coffee mug around again, wasting time that I really shouldn’t have been wasting. Every minute brought daylight closer.
    “You sure you need to visit the Road?” asked Bela.
    I nodded. “It’s not my first choice, but the way I am right now, I couldn’t protect Annabel from a squirt-gun fight.”
    “Give yourself more credit. You’ve been working with plants quite a bit over the last couple years. I’ve seen what you can do, and it’s not shabby. Your little banzai is particularly impressive. It’s like a little old man that can hold up a mountain.”
    I shook my head. “I inherited that from someone. Did you know that? Takagura.”
    “The Takagura?”
    “Yep. Not entirely my work, that little tree. In fact, not much at all.”
    Bela considered that. “But it’s still with you,” he said finally. “It looks healthy, and that says something.”
    “Sure, but not much. I’m still pretty well clueless when it comes to anything but humans.”
    “A shame. You still positive you need to go?”
    I looked down at my hands, shaking. “Coffee’s kicking in,” I said, though I knew that wasn’t it. “Stop asking me, Bela. I need to go. You didn’t see the Foxes’ place.”
    “I read about it.”
    “It’s not the same. I was there, maybe a half hour after it all happened. I’ll probably have some mental disorder after what I saw.”
    “Me. It was--” I stopped talking, remembering. The smell was what was worst, a greasy overlay of bacon and vomit and fear, and I’d heard that memories get attached to things like smells, which didn’t look good for my ever eating a BLT again. “Bad,” I said finally. “It was bad. Whoever or whatever did all that was angry and strong, and after what they did they’ll be bloated with power like a rotting tomato.”
    “Are tomatoes powerful?”
    “Work with me. I don’t have a better metaphor.”
    “I get your point.”
    We sat in silence and I stared at nothing, then I closed my eyes. “I know I’ve seen worse,” I said, “but it hit me harder this time. I guess I’ve become soft.”
    “I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh,” said Bela.
    “Now you’re the one quoting scripture.” I reflexively took another swallow of coffee--it was in my hand, and I was nervous--and I grimaced. “Terrible. I can’t finish this.”
    “You’re depriving my coffee of its purpose.”
    “Its what?”
    My friend held his hands up, palms out, as if he were painting the universe in front of us. “Everything has a right purpose in this world. Fire’s purpose is to burn and consume. Water’s purpose is to flow, to give life, to make things wet.”
    “Make things wet? That’s a purpose?”
    “Shut up, Lance. I’m making a point. Coffee has a right purpose, too, and that is to be drank. Drunk. Which is it?”
    “I have no idea, and that’s ridiculous. Coffee does not have some kind of cosmic purpose. It’s just coffee.”
    “People have a right purpose, too.”
    “Really? What’s mine?”
    Bela shrugged. “How should I know? I’m not God.”
    I blinked at him. “No. I guess not. Are you Moses?”
    “Not that I know of. Why do you ask?”
    “Moses held up his arms and stopped the sun in the sky. It gave Israel time to defeat their enemies.”
    “I can’t stop morning from coming, if that’s what you’re asking.”
    “Then I guess we’d better head downstairs.”
    “Go ahead,” said Bela. “I’ll just finish up a couple things with Shauna. You know the way.”
    I nodded and stood up. “Sure do. Bathroom break, first, though.”
    “You know the way there, too, don’t you?”
    “Sure do.”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Accidental God 4.0 -- Section 08

[Not really the end of the section, but I figured I should post it anyway.]

My uncle once looked at my sketches of the other gods. He was in town for a visit, something he hardly ever does. He loves my mother, but after a few decades of life they've realized that they have very little to say to each other. I sometimes imagine they're like those Chinese lions that stand guard outside of temples and palaces: they agree with most things, and even work well together, but there isn't much to talk about.
    "Not bad," he said. His name is Blayne, with a funny kind of spelling that isn't anywhere in our family history or anyplace. He's just a random Blayne, as he likes to call himself. "Which one is this? The one with the hotdog stand."
    "Standing Appointment."
    "He looks nice."
    "He is. He's always there."
    "At his hotdog stand?"
    "Yep. Twenty-four-seven, three-hundred-sixty-five, except on leap years."
    "What does he do on a leap year?"
    "Runs his hotdog stand. It's just that he's there three-hundred-sixty-six on those years."
    "Of course."
    We were in my small apartment, two blocks over from my temple. I had considered getting a place somewhere else, but in the end couldn't decide why I would want to. Being a god came with a certain amount of income, but not so much that a bigger place was really an option. I suppose I could have kept on with my part time work at Thai For First, one of the better restaurants in the area, but I got the impression that was frowned upon. Specifically, the government officials that gave me my introductory packet of information had asked me about my work, and then frowned. It didn't particularly make sense to me, considering what other gods in this town do for a living, but apparently 'waiter' is not considered appropriate work.
    Which is why a god who runs a hotdog stand is, all things considered, a little surprising.
    "He's a very thoughtful man," I said, talking with my uncle, sitting on my fifteen-year-old couch. "He gives out hotdogs and kind words."
    "How does he manage to be there all year long?"
    "Best I can figure, that's the miracle he performs. Never leaves."
    "Not even know."
    "Not even that."
    "Wow. Takes all sorts, I guess."
    He flipped through a few more pages. "Who's this?"
    "Bagel Girl."
    "That's the name of a goddess? Sounds a bit prosaic."
    "I've always thought her name was a little unusual."
    "Does she sell bagels?"
    "I suppose gods aren't always that creative with the nick names they hand out. Doesn't your friend Tumble Dry run a laundromat?"
    "That's nice. Miraculous cleansings, I suppose."
    "Makes your whites whiter. Absolutely."
    My uncle nodded, his face straight. That's something I like about my uncle: no matter how funny something is, I've never seen him laugh. That somehow makes everything funnier. He is the world's straight man, and he'll stay deadpan until he's dead.
    Uncle Blayne flipped through a few more pages, then back to Bagel Girl. "You've got a lot of detail on this one. She seems almost alive."
    I leaned over and looked at it more closely. He was right. I did have a lot of detail on Bagel Girl. She had become a goddess somewhere in her mid-twenties, like me, and her hair was all kinds of blonde. I mean that literally, every flavor of blonde from sawdust to straw to flax, though I'm not sure I've ever seen flax, so that one could be wrong. It had been sunny in her bagel shop that day, and I was trying to catch the way the light tangled up in her hair.
    "I guess I just got lost in her hair," I said.
    My uncle's eyebrows went up.
    "Stop it," I said. "I didn't mean it that way."
    "Oh," he said.
    "Cut it out. I really didn't."
    "I understand."
    "There's someone else, anyway."
    He flipped over toward the back of the book and help up a picture at me. "Her?"
I looked at the picture. It was Midnight Jane on one of her angry days.
    "She just gets that way sometimes," I said. "She's got a really good way with teenagers, though. She's like a mamma bear with her cubs, or an avenging angel."
    "Or an avenging bear with wings."
    "I don't feel like you're getting the point."
    He shrugged and turned the book back, flipping over to Bagel Girl.
    "Don't you need to go somewhere?" I asked.
    "Not any time soon."
    We sat longer, me stumbling around in my thoughts about what, exactly, Midnight Jane meant to me, and why my pictures of her were so much less detailed than my picture of Bagel Girl.

    I didn't go straight home after practice, like I expected I would. Instead I found myself walking over to Midnight Jane's temple. I could feel the pulse of the bass in my chest before I could hear the music. It battered me, but I pushed through it. There was a trickle of people out on the dark streets, all of us in coats against the chill, not so cold that I missed my scarf but cold enough that I walked faster and noticed I needed to use the bathroom. It's a funny thing, but whenever I'm really cold, I always have to use the bathroom. Not sure which is cause and which is effect, but there it is.
    There is no sign outside Midnight Jane's temple, just a black front with a single neon stripe across it, slightly crimped in the middle, like the glass blower had hiccuped half-way through his work. The bouncer, Misty, saw me, smiled, and let me in. Misty was one part gorilla, two parts bigger gorilla, but she carried herself with the grace of a much smaller monkey, which was enough to keep the worse elements from bothering Midnight Jane's club--as if the fact it was MIDNIGHT JANE'S club wasn't enough for most people, or at least the smarter ones. I slipped past the line of waiting teenagers and paused inside the door, letting my eyes adjust as much as they ever did to the dark and strobing lights, a sugary seizure-confetti.
    The club was full, as it always is, and I realized I didn’t want to be there. It was a bad habit, like scratching at scabs on my face, which I only ever managed to stop by virtue of the fact that I don't get scabs anymore. One of the strangenesses of being a god is the little things that simply disappear out of your life: acne, bruises, bad haircuts. I'm serious about that last one, but I don't understand it. Why would being divine naturally give a body good hair? Even Midnight Jane's muddy color job didn't make her hair look BAD. It still fell around her face in attractive waves, almost hiding her eyes but not quite. I've tried to butcher my own hair, cutting it away with my kitchen scissors, just to see if it would work, but I ended up with an attractively disheveled look that pulled a compliment out of my mother. Apparently I had finally made a positive fashion decision.
    But my haircut was not on my mind, at least not anymore than a haircut is always on a person's mind in a technical, geographical sense. I was trying to find Midnight Jane, and I knew exactly why, and I didn't like the reason. It was just another of my attempts to get her to see me, the way the Titanic just wanted to get the attention of that iceberg.
    Kids--and no, I don't know when college students became "kids" to me and not "potential dates"--bounced off each other in a jumble of glowing beverages, glowing neon lights, and glowing faces (and that last one was both metaphorical and physical due to some kind of face paint). Last time I'd been in Midnight Jane's club the theme had been 'FIRE,' and I do mean that with all capitol letters, but with all the fire there had been no smoke. This time the theme seemed to be 'NEON,' and everyone moved in glowing squiggles through the darkness. I found myself pressed and jostled and bumped, surprised at all the business in the middle of the week. It was time to find Midnight Jane and get out of there.
    But she wasn't going to go with me. No, she'd stay at her temple all night, because that was who she was. It had taken me a while to figure that out, what exactly she was, I mean, but I had gotten there. At least a little. Midnight Jane wasn't someone who talked about herself much, so it wasn't from her that I'd started to learn her history.
    Mostly it was from the kids I met at her temple. It's not that any of them knew her better than I did--at least, I hoped they didn't--but it was the kind of kids they were. There was one girl who had been on the street for three months, she told me, before she found her way to Midnight Jane's. The girl told me, while drinking something I was pretty sure wasn't legal for her, all about the best dumpsters for finding food that was mostly good, not too old, and not too fatty. It surprised me, seeing this slender girl talk about watching her weight as she brushed back frizzy hair from her face, but I suppose even homelessness doesn't change some things.
    Then there was the boys, older and younger, one blonde, one brunette, who needed a place to wait while their father sobered up. "He's got big hands," one of the boys had said.
    Then there were the rooms in the back, behind some pretty thick walls that only barely held back the bass, where single mothers could settle in with their kids for a night or a month or a year. There were the rooms upstairs for kids who needed to come down off something nasty and then get help for the time it took them to really get clean, get sober, get ready to go out into the world again. They serve alcohol at Midnight Jane's club, but never to the people that really can't handle it, and nothing harder ever makes it through the doors. Dealers don't even come close. They don't dare.
    Midnight Jane never told me what her life was like before she became a goddess, but, like I said, the kind of kids that make their way to her temple tell a pretty clear story. That's why I say she's a kind woman.
    A kind woman I couldn't find. Where was she? I pushed through the crowd, moving toward the upper level where she'd sometimes hang out with the kids. I caught sight of her chief acolyte, Big Larry, and he nodded his white-guy afro at me, jerking his head toward some tables close to the bar. I guess she wasn't upstairs then. I scanned the various glowing patrons, trying to figure out which was Midnight Jane with her muddy hair, and that's when I realized I'd been looking for the wrong thing entirely. Midnight Jane's hair wasn't muddy at all.
    What I had taken for a bad dye job was, in the dark of the club, brilliant. Literally. It glowed with a jagged weave of blues, greens, yellows, oranges. Her stylist hadn't messed up at all. We just hadn't had seen what the style was really intended for. Somehow she must have felt her eyes on me, because she turned, caught my eye, and smiled.
    I half waved and started to make my way towards her, when someone bumped into me, spilling something onto my shirt.
    "Terribly sorry," said the man.
    "Don't worry about it," I said, but he had already moved on, and I was looking for Midnight Jane again, but I'd somehow been turned around. She was back over...there. I stepped out again to go talk to her, because something was growing in my mind that I wanted to say to her. It was a small plant, a small thought, and I've never been good with plants so I couldn't tell if the idea was a rose or a dandelion, but I was ready to try it.
    If I could just get to her. Someone else bumped into me, a woman, and the bumping wasn't entirely unpleasant, but it was a bit rough and I lost my direction again. Where was Midnight Jane? The bar was over that way, so her table was--no, she wasn't there anymore. Where had she gone? Aha, there was her hair, talking to someone over by speakers, though I don't know how they could possibly hear each other. I started off that direction, then someone collided with me again, a man this time, and when I regained my balance I had, once again, entirely lost sight of Midnight Jane. What was with this? And why was that man dressed in a suit?
    The woman bumped into me again, spinning me around entirely, and she was easily in her late thirties, unusual for this club, and also dressed in a kind of suit, though a bit more stylish than the suit the man was wearing.
    "I don't believe it," I said out loud, and no one heard me, which was good, I suppose, because I actually did believe it. Mr. Obscure Pike was striking again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Accidental God 4.0 -- Section 07

[Here's summore.]

    I climbed off the bus near the Eternal Rest right about the same time that Tumble Dry was walking up with one of his sons. Tumble Dry, with his architectural nose and long limbs, looks to be in his early forties, but with the eyebrows of a much older man. His son, standing next to him and laughing, had less grandiose facial features, was equally long, and looked to be in his late forties. This was something I still hadn't wrapped my head around as a god. I'd only been divine for three years, so life hadn't had much time to catch up to me, look at me in pity, and pass me by. At least that's how Tumble Dry had described it one night, drunk on melancholy.
    "Life does pity us, Bradley," he said. "Nothing on this earth was meant to stand still. Life, death, the eternal cycle. It's how things should be, but we've stepped on some cosmic spill of laundry detergent and slipped right out of the natural way of things, like a hamster falling out of his wheel. You ever seen that?"
    "Laundry detergent in a hamster wheel?" I asked.
    He waved his hand. "Never mind. My point is, we're the wax apples in an entire bushel of real fruit. When the rest of the fruit is gone, eaten and enjoyed, we'll be beautiful and pathetic and alone."
    It was a very depressing conversation, but I found out later from Midnight Jane that Tumble Dry's youngest child had just turned thirty-five, the age the god had been when his wife had given birth for the last time. It made me curious what age his wife was, but some things Tumble Dry keeps private. I've never seen her, not even in photographs.
    But at the Eternal Rest, outside on the sidewalk, the long god looked cheerful enough, and his son was telling a story with broad gestures of his hands. I started to eaves drop as I got closer.
    "Then the entire troop of Girl Scouts surrounds the angel, and you can tell the guy is late for work, but he just CAN'T say 'no' to them, and they've got sixteen cases of cookies left to sell, and the panic starts to spread across his face. I wanted to save the guy, somehow give him a way to escape, but then I thought to myself, 'What would my dad do?'"
    Tumble Dry snorted, wrinkling up his prodigious nose and doubling over. "You let him suffer!" he wheezed.
    "All sixteen," said his son. "The poor angel bought all sixteen cases before they let him escape. I'd never seen a more determined or ruthless group of thirteen-year-olds in my life. Women like that are going to be running this country in twenty years."
    "And we'll be better for it," said Tumble Dry. He looked over and noticed me. "Bradley! You remember my son? This is Mark."
    Mark held out his hand, I took it and shook it. "Of course I remember Mark, though I admit, I'd forgotten your name."
    Mark shrugged it off, his grip firm. "Just remember who my dad is, and I'll be happy."
    "Please," said Tumble Dry. "Don't be too proud of me. Just wait and see how badly I lose in the Divine Tourney."
    "I don't see how you can lose," said Mark. "Dad set up a ping pong table in all three of his Temple Laundromats, and he'll play with anyone who shows half a interest. It's a bit pathetic how competitive my father is."
    "You're one to talk," said the father in question. "How's your internet business doing, by the way?"
    "Number one in Wisconsin. And Illinois."
    Tumble Dry looked at me blandly.
    "I'm staying out of this conversation," I said. "I'm not number one at anything."
    "No!" said Tumble Dry, sharply. "You are the number one ping pong player in the Eternal Rest. You are the god of ping pong!"
    I started to open my mouth to say that I was anything BUT the god of ping pong, but Tumble Dry cut me off.
    "Attitude! Winning starts in the head, Bradley. If you're not confident in your skills, how can you expect to bring those skills out to the table. You are a powerhouse! You will dominate! You are a god!"
    "Everyone else is a god, too."
    "Stop it!"
    "And weren't you just saying YOU were going to lose?"
    "Ah, that may be true, but I also have a keen awareness of reality, and I know one thing absolutely: you, Bradley, are much better than I am. You're carrying my hopes on this one, friend, and you will be BRILLIANT."
    Mark put his hand on his dad's shoulder. "Sorry for cutting in, but Mom is expecting me. We're putting up that new curtain rod."
    Tumble Dry smacked his forehead. "I completely forgot. That was my job."
    Mark smiled at me, still talking to his father. "Yes, it was, but Mom hasn't been married to you this long without knowing how you get when there's a competition ahead. Go, practice, and I'll take care of the curtain rod."
    "I could send one of my angels to do it, if you don't have time, with your business and your kids. Mithraelind probably isn't too busy--"
    "Dad, I want to do this. I haven't had much time with Mom recently. It's good for me to take a break."
    Tumble Dry held his breath, then nodded. "You're right. It's sometimes good to take a break. I think I'll do that, too." He looked down at his watch. "Mind if we do a shorter practice tonight, Bradley?"
    I glanced at Mark, who winked at me. "Sure," I said, "we can cut this one shorter."

    Mad Hatter Barnes isn't the only superlative staff member at the Eternal Rest. Graceless Grace is perhaps the best chef in the greater Northern Lights environs, and the Angry Triplets, who aren't actually related, are one of the more astonishing cleaning crews ever assembled by man or god--and those are simply the only staff that are coming to mind at the moment. There are several more, and I have no idea who is in charge of hiring for the club, but I expect it is a demon. It would take that kind of devious mind to whisk these people away from whatever fabulously paying job they previously worked, cooking for princes or waiting on marquises. (I failed to mention previously that one of my aspirations as a child was to be a marquis. I'm still not entirely certain what they are, but whatever it is, that's what I wanted to be.)
    Double Take French--yes, that is her complete name, and I have absolutely no idea why--had set up a practice area for competitors--multiple practice areas, actually. The staff of the Eternal Rest has learned from numerous years of Divine Tourneys that gods are somewhat competitive--something that anyone could learn who had the slightest bit of knowledge about the Trojan War, Ragnarok, or the Philatelic Crusades (and yes, that war WAS about stamp collecting, though I understand it is a slight misnomer, since Philately is the STUDY of stamps, not the actual collection)--but I'm getting away from the point. Competitive gods do not like to be observed during their training, so Double Take French had divided one of the larger basement rooms into eight separate ping pong training areas. The temporary walls between sections were thick enough and carpeted enough to be mostly soundproof, and the sign up sheet for the areas was kept by the team of Matthews that run the front desk. (Matthew the Red, Tiny Matthew, Remainder Table Matthew, and Ugly Matthew, if you were wondering.)
    I had planned on being content with just a few spare games to get ready, playing with my dad a time or two, and then diving in. I recognize that I do have some skill with a ping pong paddle--not a phrase that anyone with the slightest shred of cool has ever used at a party--but I've never felt any real need to win against the elder gods, or even any optimism. The elder gods are GODS, the genuine kind of god that did all the stuff I read about in D'Aulaires' History of Europe for Children.
    Tumble Dry, of course, had other ideas.
    "Again," he said, "but faster."
    "I've already done the serve twenty-seven times. I'm not sure it's going to GET any faster."
    In fact, I had done that serve--Water Leaking Through a Narrow Crevasse--closer to forty times, but I didn't want to sound like a whiner. Unfortunately, Tumble Dry had a point. It wasn't sliding off my paddle like it usually did, and the serve that he normally had a nearly impossible time returning was snapping back across the net at me at insulting speeds.
    Tumble Dry tossed his paddle down onto the table. "What is it?" he asked. "You are not yourself tonight."
    "Maybe I'm just tired. We have been at this for almost three hours. Shouldn't I be resting before the Tourney?"
    "Nonsense. You've been putting in this many hours training for almost a month. Your arm is fine and you'll be fine. This is hardly a warmup for you. What is the matter? Get it out of your brain. You can't afford any distractions tomorrow."
    I thought about telling him. I really did. Tumble Dry has a way of leaping at problems, grabbing them in his jaws like an alligator snatching a poodle, then shaking it around until pink fur is flying everywhere and all the problems have gone away. It was appealing, the thought of sicking him on Mr. Obscure Pike and letting someone with more experience clear the path for me. I opened my mouth to strip away all my troubles and run through the world of the Divine Tourney naked and carefree--or something like that--when my cell phone rang.
    "I know that music," said Tumble Dry.
    I nodded. "Yeah, it's my mother. You mind if I get this?"
    "Of course I mind, but I know you will anyway."
    I shrugged, pulled my phone out of my pocket, and flipped it open. Due to budget constraints, I was one of the few people in Northern Lights with a cell phone that pretty much was just a cell phone.
    "Hi, Mom," I said.
    "About tomorrow," she said, skipping over greetings entirely. "You are still competing?"
    "Fine. I'm bringing someone along that I'd like you to meet."
    "What?" I said, with the usual kind of lightning thought and witty dialogue I am only capable of with my mother.
    "I'm bringing someone to watch you compete that I would like you to meet. She is a lovely girl, highly educated, and the daughter of a good friend of mine. After you have played in your first match, you can treat us to dinner in the club, though if you can't afford it I suppose I can get you some money before tomorrow night. I think it will give a better impression if she sees that you are the one paying, and not your mother, don't you? In fact, it would be best if you could put it 'on your tab,' if you can run a tab at that club. Do you need me to send you money?"
    "I have enough money for dinner here, Mom. That's not the problem."
    "Oh?" she said, and there was weight to that single syllable, like an inverted iceberg, tip down. "Does that mean that there is some problem with my suggestion?"
    My mother calls them suggestions, but they're suggestions in the same way that a chef suggests things to a head of cabbage with his knife. I could feel my life plans in threat of being hacked into pieces, but I suppose I couldn't blame my mother for trying. Her perspective was that I wasn't getting any younger--not that I was getting any older, either--and she wanted me to find someone nice to spend the next few decades of my life with. She couldn't have known that I already had someone in mind because of the very simple reason that I hadn't told her. The thought of Midnight Jane and my mother in the same room made the lizard part of my brain start to twitch, anxious to find some narrow crack to slip through into darkness.
    "There aren't enough tickets," I said, settling onto the most cowardly way of avoiding the issue that I could find.
    "Of course there are," said my mother. "I found another. That was your only objection? Excellent. Then I plan on seeing you tomorrow for your first match. It was at six, correct?"
    I nodded, realized I was on the phone, and told her out loud that she was correct.
    "See you then, Bradley, and I do hope you win. It always does look better to a girl when a prospective suitor wins, but I suppose you could always be a gracious loser. Good night, Bradley."
    "Good night, Mom." I closed my phone and looked at Tumble Dry.
    "It's not my place to say anything," he said.
    "But you're going to anyway."
    "I'm going to anyway. You need some boundaries with your mother. I have no idea what that conversation was about, but you were on the run before you even answered the phone."
    "Blind date tomorrow," I said. "Apparently she's a very nice girl."
    "And your mother doesn't know that you have a...thing...for someone else?" Tumble Dry, with the eye of a father who has married off multiple sons, had recognized my interest in Midnight Jane almost before I had, and he'd been, well, not exactly supportive, but he hadn't tried to interfere. He'd let me do my own thing. Or rather, NOT do my own thing, with all the progress I'd been making.
    "She has no idea. I'm not that crazy. Midnight Jane is--"
    "Mean," filled in Tumble Dry, "but in a nice way."
    "She's not exactly mean. She's just--"
    "Goth," inserted Tumble Dry again.
    "She's not exactly Goth, either. Well, at least not this week. Have you said anything to her about the color of her hair?"
    Tumble Dry pulled back. "Oh no! I learned long ago not to comment on any woman's appearance other than to say 'you look great' and 'did you get a hair cut?'--and I only use the second one sparingly. But either way, mean or Goth or both, it shouldn't be your mother's business whether you are interested in Midnight Jane or not. It's up to you now. You're twenty-seven."
    "She's my mom."
    "You're a god."
    "She's the mayor of a city lousy with gods. Besides, you know what the elder gods say: divinity isn't what it used to be."
    Tumble Dry laughed. "Either way, this blind date isn't a good thing. You need to be able to concentrate on tomorrow night. No way of putting it off?"
    I grimaced and shook my head. "It would be more stressful if I tried to fight it. I'll just go with the flow, like a paper ship in a gutter."
    "Nice image," said Tumble Dry, then he froze. "Hang on. How long did you say we'd been practicing tonight?"
    I checked my watch again. "Almost three hours."
    He muttered something under his breath--I assumed it was something pungent from his childhood, like 'golly gosh gee whiz!'--and started packing away his paddle and ping pong balls. "I said I was going to cut it short tonight. I'm never going to catch up with all the evenings I owe my wife even if she lives to one-hundred-fifty."
    "She's not nearly that old, is she?"
    He shook his head. "Not even close. You'll have to meet her some time."
    "She coming tomorrow night?"
    "I don't think so."
    That was all he said. I had picked up the impression, somewhere during the last three years, that Mrs. Dry wasn't comfortable around gods. I hoped that didn't extend to her own husband--he had been a reasonably normal man before his divinity, after all--but it was another of the questions I never dared to ask.
    "Thanks for the practice, Bradley," said Tumble Dry, reaching out to shake hands. "You'll be great tomorrow. Just be sure to get whatever it is off your chest that's on it. You need to play with a clear mind."
    Then he was out the door and gone. I packed my paddle into its cloth carrying bag and made my way to the club's locker room. Not many people were around--I nodded at Marilyn Swing and a god whose name I had forgotten twice--and made my way to my locker. I may have given the wrong impression by calling this a 'locker room.' While it's true that each of us had our own individual space with a door that could be closed and locked, each 'locker' was large enough to hold a tall, muscular god inside with room left enough for two significant pieces of sporting equipment, such as a lacrosse stick and a polo pony. That's a slight exaggeration, but think hardwood walk-in closet more than locker, and you have the right idea.
    I pulled open my locker door and stared.
    "Really?" I said out loud. "Shaving cream?"
    I said 'shaving cream' because that's exactly what my entire walk-in closet was filled with: masculine scented foam. Parts of the mass were collapsing under its own weight back into a bluish gel, but overall the foam was holding up remarkably well. I decided that Mr. Pike was correct: his team was, in fact, excellent. Creating such a stable pile of foam must have required a real--if terribly misapplied--amount of skill.
    And I was certain it was Mr. Pike. There, perched on the front of the pile like a sort of masthead on a ship of sea foam, was his card.
    I sighed, closed the door, and left to go home without a shower.