THAT LITTLE GIRL
A Short Story
Clinton D. Harding
First things first… what is required is a good scratch in the nether-regions, the man needing to rub away his little man's morning greeting. The beaming sun did not help matters in the daily rise, getting his eyelids to roll up like he was trying to do now was only the first step and he couldn't seem to even do that! Blinking away the sleepiness never has been this difficult. The man is close to waving his middle finger at the window and uttering grumpily, "piss off sun, bring on the rain!" This would be the counter to the more cheery rain-rain go away children's rhyme.
The sun was too into itself to comply with the man's desire for an excuse to roll back over and snuggle up to his pillow for another hour of sleep. "Egotistical prick!" the man muttered to the ceiling.
The man- not fat but out of shape, the elastic band of his underpants obscured by a tiny fold of flab -yawned. Furthering things along, he threw back his bedsheets and swung his legs out so he could sit up. He counts himself lucky; this morning there was no headache to greet him like a roaster's call. Small thanks for small favors.
After a long stretch and rubbing the sleep from his eyes and cheeks- a go at un-wrinkling fifteen years from his forty-something paleface, run down by innumerable years of unsmiling -he waved a dismissive hand at the smiling sun outside his window.
"What's so special about today?" He demanded with a glare to the greeting ball of bursting light. "It's just another day…" he added in manner which suggests he had long ago submitted to this opinion.
There came next the trip to the bathroom. A quick piss was followed by a take-your-time jiggle.
The man turned on the shower head and waited for the water to warm. Quickly he wondered, what's the point? The man shrugged then slumped over the rim of the tub and endured the icy fall of the hard water.
A sigh left the man as he turned off the shower; the noise from his throat like a balloon slowly losing the air that kept it aloft in the sky. Stepping out of the tub he looked at his sopping wet body and wondered where it all went wrong. The little man hung lamely like a corpse, forgetful of its exercise no more five minutes ago.
One more good scratch and a tug, a lifesaving measure, and the man toweled off and dressed.
Walking down the narrow hall leading to the kitchen the man's brain is still back in his stiff bed. He had half-dressed himself to show his mutinous attitude. His brown trousers are wrinkled a week past when they should have been dry-cleaned; his shirt is un-pressed and un-tucked; his tie unknotted and hanging loosely around his neck.
All along the tight, long space that divided the home only a Tolkien hobbit would find homey, there were picture frames hanging about the walls. With so many frames casual observer might assume this drab and boring, forty-something was well liked, he may even have friends whom thought enough of his comradeship to offer their pictures to remind him of their friendship.
In this assumption you would be wrong.
Point to a picture, go ahead. Pick one out of the dozens. Ask this man whom the smiling young woman is sitting by the lakeshore with the little girl and her toothy smile. It's the picture in the utilitarian frame next to the air-conditioning control box.
Always the response the man will give you: "Not anyone I know." And always it will be delivered after a painful hesitation. Sad.
This is his common answer because… frankly… the man does not have an acquaintance with any of the people in the pictures lining his hallway. All the pictures in the frames are those stock photos slipped in for display at any store found in Middle America. Most buyers take out these photos and replace each with one of their loved ones. But not this man we spy on as he goes about his morning like it was one more in a long string of thousands come before it. This man has no other photos.
In the kitchen the man poured out half of a bowl of Shredded Wheat. The flakes went tink-tink against the ceramic bowl. He added milk and waited for the cereal to dampen to a nice soggy consistency while reading the morning paper.
The obituaries were always the first section he reads. It is always the lives of the dead- those fading film reels left behind to collect dust –that interest him, far more so than those being lived.
Like the sound of an old basset hound's waking yawn, the garage door rose. Heavy, the door these days is more dry-rout than wood; it rose feebly with little help from the overworked springs.
Shielding his squinting eyes with his forearm- the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes deepening –the man looked in his VW beetle's rearview mirror. Beyond the garage the day revealed itself. The sight was what a newborn would have seen when being forcibly yanked from its mother's womb and into a strange and alien world not of its own making.
The man felt a shiver play the vertebrae along his spine as the first rays of the cherry-colored sun hit the back of his neck and the bald spot a top of his peppered head. The feeling is unpleasant; it made the man wanted to shake out of his suit and crawl into bed even more.
His hand went to the ignition and turned the key mechanically.
"Dang limb!" he spat, glaring at the traitor and mumbling more curses under his breath.
After yanking the shifter over and down, wrenching the motor into reverse, the traitorous hand smacked the man on the thigh. He grumbled and screwed up his face angrily, deepening the premature lining of his face. Before he knew it, he was backing the little car down his driveway, the back tires rolling over the cracked and wet sidewalk and toward the avenue.
Doing what was needed, according to the state DMV handbook, the man looked to his right and than to his left.
Standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the man's car to pass, stood a girl of no more than eight, maybe. This one was a sad-looking creature, not smiling like the little miss in the store photo on his wall.
But just like the toothy girl in the picture, the man took no notice of the girl on the sidewalk. He knew her not and cared little about her. However, glancing at the downcast girl made the man skip a second look over his right shoulder. Not that it would have mattered, the man is soft and slow, his reflexes unreliable and apt to chocking when the chips were down and the last second was on the clock.
And here comes the buzzer.
A monstrous roar threatened to burst the man's right eardrum. The angry hullabaloo made the man's car quake and the hairs on the back of his neck stand up at attention.
The man looked over his right shoulder and toward the offensive roar. The monster was in fact a Dodge pickup truck.
Quickly the honking horn became incessant, fearful behind its rage.
In the time it takes a thought to stutter, the honking ceased and brakes began to squeal. The man's heart lurched up into his throat. This is a lurch akin to the sudden jerk your body makes when life comes up from behind to kick you in the sweat spot. It becomes that time to hold your breath, say your prayers and hope that life is going to give you a laughable love-tap.
The man backing out of his driveway, in his squish-able bug, did not sense any impending trouble. The dread coming to a boil inside him had begun to drown him and his rational thoughts. He wouldn't be hurt or die; after all, the person behind the wheel of the pickup had seen him. The charging auto was honking, suggesting this. It would slow, any second now. Yes… the pickup would slow.
In one second…
Maybe two seconds, yup…
No one is going to interrupt the flow of my day, the man determined. The flow is all the world has given me… I won't have it taken. NO!
He flipped the shadowed pickup driver the bird without a second thought and shouted with the voice of a surprised announcer at a ball game who had just spotted the player on third stealing home.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING, YOU IDIOT!?" He patted the air over the passenger seat in a stop-motion. "I'M BACKING UP HERE!"
Two seconds pass… then three…
Something is wrong. The pickup is not slowing. It is getting closer and speeding up contrary to the hilarious screeching of its breaks. The smell of burnt rubber assaults the man's nose, hot and stinky.
The pickup is going to slam into the beetle with the man inside, the man who simply wanted to set off to work. He slammed his hand onto the shifter and attempted to yank it up and over into first gear, to pull back into the driveway. Too late, sir.
"DANG IT ALL!" His free hand's middle finger is still raised proudly like the American Flag on the 4th of July. "WHAT IN HELL ARE…"
The gears of the bug grind, sounding wounded and frantic.
Before the drab and boring man could finish, he feels his chest tighten, all the breath in his soon to be tenderized lungs is blown out by an unseen force. There comes the shameful, warm flow of urine, dampening his trousers and…
"WHAT IN HELL ARE YOU DOING!? Wait...?"
Everything had gone black.
Had his eyes closed? Had death swept down upon him, taking the man into its bosom?
No, the latter was not right, he didn't think so. This is blackness with a dull glow behind it, as if thick curtains were drawn in front of the source, obscuring it.
The man opened his eyes, blinking slowly in a testing manner.
Before he could catch a glimpse of anything, his eyes snapped tightly shut again. He felt that quick snap buzz in his head. Tears were trying to escape the folds of skin around his closed eyes.
No… this is insane! The man thought, reassuring himself. If I am dead… I'll have to open my eyes and accept it…
To be honest, the man didn't know what he would do if he opened his eyes and found himself having passed from one life to the next. All he was thinking about was how death would mess with his routine. Wake up… get out of bed… toilet stop… scratch… dress… eat breakfast… die! That was not the daily plan and the disruption unnerved the man more than the death itself. Odd.
Perhaps that was why doubt began to slip into the man's mind. Dying was not part of the plan. Therefore, logically, this couldn't be death.
I'm not dead. Naaaah! His thought was a nod of certainty.
All around him the man felt closed in…. he could feel sold walls pressing in from three sides. Was he perhaps in a room, of sorts? Maybe this is a holding area or interrogation room for pending judgment? Are Saint Peter and the Grim Reaper going to come in and play good-cop-bad-cop, beat me with a phone book and offer me fruit from the Tree of Life-and-Death? Or is this going be a laugh-fest like Dragnet?
Just the facts, ma'am.
Of course, he didn't believe this After Death Dragnet idea and laughed at the absurdity.
The man took in a deep and quivering drag of air, giving him another second to gather courage.
A shot of something would have done him better.
The man opened his eyes after counting to three in his head… slowly.
ONE… TWO… THHHHRRRREEE…
Looking around he found himself in a small space, big enough to turn around in but taking more than a step in any direction would be impossible.
Indeed there were three walls, high enough so that the average person easily could see over. There are no pictures on the walls, no sheets of paper. Everything was plainly decorated. Swiveling around in the chair he sat, the routinely focused man's knees hit a metal cabinet. OUCH! It was his filing cabinet, set underneath the u-shaped desk that rounded the three walls below waist height. His computer terminal was humming warmly down near his right foot.
He soon noticed ringing phones in neighboring cubicles. Off in the distance came the echo of a fax machine's wail, the harsh scratching tickled the overgrowth in his ears. His thinning blonde hair was rustled. He looked up and squinted passed the sterile light. Overhead, cold air from an air-conditioning vent dried the damp v-shaped stain darkening the back of his shirt.
I'm alive! The man decided. A slight smile curled up one corner of his lip, I knew it! He chuckled. It has been stupid to think he was dead.
But… something nagged at him. Just how did he get to his office? Strange. The man did not even remember driving here. He certainly, without any angry, vengeful doubt, remembered cursing the pickup driver who almost t-boned him earlier that morning. How early had it been? He shook his head, the time wasn't important. Obviously he had made it to the office in one-piece. The man groped at his crouch. His pants were dry. Everything was in place. Comforting, to say the least.
Must've doused off, he decided. Had he dreamt the accident all together? The computer screen in front of him had a Windows logo billowing like a flag in a dramatic wind.
Looking over at the slender nameplate on the wall announced this little hole in the cube farm to belong to one DENNIS P. SHEMP. The man shrugged off the black spot on his memory as if it were regular, a burned spot on a piece of film reel after too many showings. Such a blip happens when your start creeping toward fifty. Or maybe it was a dream?
This was not the hell, just a subdivision next to the mail room at M-tech, a company specializing in data management and statistical analysis. Close enough for government work.
Deer walking out of forests and wandering onto country roads often find car lights at night mesmerizing… That is till the grill of an auto smacks them and smears their blood across its windshield. Humans have to worry about that when they become entranced by the glow of a screen. Any screen, whether that be a computer monitor or a television set.
We become boobs when memorized by the screen. One of the worst effects a person will experience from staring at a screen too long is a horrible case of the munchies. When this happens the brain cells start going snap-crackle-pop, burning away like a bad batch of hash. Or so says every nagging American mother when speaking of the comforting baby-sitter.
Careful! Careful or you'll be run over by the snack-cart coming down the lane instead of a suburban minivan driving home from grandma's! Those Cheetos, Snickers, and Ho-Hos weigh as much as elephant leavings.
Dennis Shemp heard the clicking of his keyboard's keys like dull thuds behind white noise, barely discernible.
CRUNCH! On autopilot, the boob popped one Pork Rine after another in his waiting mouth, which hung open dumbly as he stared at his computer screen. Never mind that the snacks had no taste. Needs more salt, he thought dejectedly. Nevertheless, it was something to do. His screen-high brain had told him to get up, get the salty treats and bust open the bag. That was it! A hypnotic commercial with Lucky the dancing leprecon, could not have been more demanding.
One thought did creep into Shemp's numbed brain, though, a sliver of recognition which interrupted his typing. Gloria Sutton's name was left half completed in the endless customer list that populated his spreadsheet. She, like thousands of other poor consumers, would soon be receiving printed product catalogs in the mail after Shemp's work was completed. Soon enough these rags were going to be more useful as coffee table coasters.
Chewing the latest Pork Rine a little slower, having pressed the SLOW button on the remote of life, the next salty snack in line for munching quickly found itself in midair inches away from Shemp's open, saggy jaws.
Having been leaning forward with his eyes six-inches from the computer monitor, Shemp now slumped back into his chair. The idea of eating the Pork Rine he currently held had completely left his mind.
He was recalling getting up from his desk to get the bag of Pork Rines… but why was he doing that?
Not necessarily hungry but feeling a pull from somewhere in his sizzling brain, Shemp had gotten up from his seat and dragged himself to the lunchroom down the hall from his department's work area. The low-lit room had walls painted to resemble the sea with a thick trip of dark brown for mountains on the horizon. Sailing cloth cut into triangles hung loosely down from the ceiling, representing clouds. The three young women in the room- all high school interns -were vying for the day's skimpiest, low cut outfit in the office award (or at least what the teases could get away with, and that was part of the game anyway).
Whatever would get tongues on the floor, thought Shemp as he made his way around the barely legal interns and between clusters of futurist tables. The vending machines waited anxiously in the far left corner. He kept his head down, a dollar and twenty cents jingling in his hand as he shrugged on by with little interest to the girls' conversation. He kept his tongue set firmly in his mouth, meeting little resistance.
The three interns, for their part, paid no attention to Shemp either. They never once glanced over at him during the time he had walked in, placed his money in the vending machine, and then left. No comment was made about the stench of his musty aqua velva. Although he had been conscious of the chance a comment could have been made, under breath. But he cared little if even one was made, and this was queer. On any other day Shemp would have been embarrassed to be the three girl's presence, alternatively making his way to the men's room after a second thought, waiting for the skimpy interns to disperse.
Sitting at his desk twenty minutes later, Shemp decided there was little change in the young women's attitudes toward him. The skimpily dressed interns never paid him mind. He was as good as invisible to them.
"To everyone," Shemp muttered as he shoved another tasteless snack past his thin lips. "Definitely needs more salt," he gripped, tempted to throw away the Pork Rines but unable to part.
Outside Shemp's cramped cubicle there came voices. Shemp kept his back to the two individuals who he immediately recognized.
"You get that e-mail from HR this morning, Zor?" asked the man with a cocky, rebellious tune, clearly compensating. Shemp knew the man as Zach Wedgeworth.
Zor answered with perfect English, though Shemp knew Zor's family was from some small village in Iran. "Yeah, that 'word of the day' thing, right? It's 'Posed to be a new security protocol. When someone calls from another department we're required now to ask 'em for the 'word of the day', verifying who they are."
"Yeah, man!" sniggered Zack. Shemp figured he added a nod just so his flowing hair could do a little dip-and-throw move.
So cool! Shemp thought with snark oozing from his sarcasm. His keystrokes slowed to keep pace with the conversation he found idiotic and a complete waste of time. Yet he could not help but listen.
Why was it that both men had the nerve to be conducting the conversation right outside Shemp's cube? Yeah, the printer was there and one of them was grabbing some hot sheets from the upper tray. But both stood at the entryway to his space, lacking any consideration keep their voices down. They did not even have the courtesy to look in to see if Shemp was working and did not want to be interrupted. It was rude and it made the Pork Rine munching boob feel small, a speck of dirt on the shoe of life.
Like I'm not here, he growled inside himself, halfway to being fed up.
Zack went on. "Can you believe what security is making up too?! I looked today on the company intranet page while heading over to Yahoo to check my stocks. Guess what the word is?"
Zor said nothing; he clearly cared little about security protocol.
"Get this," Zack said, pausing for dramatic effect. "Burrito! The 'Word of the Day' is effin' 'Burrito'! Crap they pull from under their butts, Zor buddy, I tell ya!"
Laughter exploded between the two men. Shemp was tempted to grab on to his monitor, he thought the thunderous sounds would shake the desk apart. He curled his toes inside his brown loafers… just to be safe.
After the conversation concerning the intern pool's ever-receding hemline- Zack saying those who were too well-endowed should never show so much skin –the pair of coworkers moved away from Shemp's cube. They both said they were going back to work but Shemp knew they would be rendezvousing at the coffeemaker at some point later.
The better place to ignore me, he declared with little enthusiasm or care at this point.
At this point, Shemp was used to being ignored. He had become a phantom, of sorts. He was the un-scary ghost of the office; Casper could haunt the place better and get tips for the entertainment. Part of it could have been his fault. He had no wish to socialize or even try to fade into a chuckling group and pretend to be receptive of their interests. So Shemp ultimately kept to himself. Lunch was always spent on the same park bench in the garden common area laid out at the back of the building, a place where there was plenty of shade to disappear within. In high school the lunch spot had been a shady corner in the library at the crux of Biographies and Science Fiction. It was there that the librarian couldn't see his sack lunch and where atomic wedgies were scarce. Then the bell would maliciously call him back to be ridiculed by other students during fifth period. Today, coming out of his cubical was reserved for recovering freshly inked pages off the printer. If he needed a question answered by a co-worker, Shemp would simply e-mail that someone. He had a feeling- a good feeling -that if he had died that morning no one would have noticed.
Ask Zack or Zor who Dennis P. Shemp is. Both would probably appear to be at a loss, even if his nameplate were hanging right next to their heads.
While he considered if his office phantom calling bothered him, Shemp found he cared little. Did I ever care?
It was better than some guy aspiring to the IQ of Fred Flintstone snapping a towel at your naked butt while you change in the locker room after P.E. class.
Shemp returned to munching Pork Rines. An hour later he would skip lunch because he didn't feel the rumbling call of food from his belly.
The day had gone much like it did any other. Shemp gathered data. He sorted data. He made the data readable to anyone who couldn't understand the data in its raw form.
In the background there had been chattering nonsense… There was the click-click of keystrokes. The dings of incoming e-mails were maddening. Yet all of it seemed muffled, as if cotton had been stuck in the man's ears, each individual sound merging and becoming one. Many times Shemp wanted to swat at his ears, the annoyance of those combined office noises a buzzing he just wanted to swat before it burrowed into his brain.
Three different times he had brushed at his left ear while his face screwed up in irritation. He would make a noise when doing this too, a growl between snapping teeth.
"C'mon now," he whispered coldly. "Am I going to have to hear about Sherrie's little brat's first steps all-day? Whatan accomplishment!" he sarcastically decreed between gnashing teeth, his tiny fists clenched and held firmly on top of his desk. "Three steps! The brat made it a whole inch further across the carpet then the previous week! HO-RAY!"
Shemp had been so eager to get away from the gaggle that he barely remembered leaving at 5:00 PM. It was akin to floating.
One moment he was at his desk checking his e-mails for the last time that day. The next thing he knew he was driving his beetle down the road to hook onto the freeway.
The old auto puttered up a steep summer road a mile from Shemp's middleclass neighborhood.
As the beetle dragged itself up the incline, Shemp wiped his brow of sweat. Panting he quickly cranked the window down and swallowed air, warm but fresh. In the rearview mirror he watches the sun bleeding orange and yellow across the horizon, the night bringing a negative ten degrees of bliss. Below the setting summer sun the road ahead appeared steamy, relieving itself of all the heat it had absorbed during the day.
In view, on either side of the street, standing sentinel as if guards of the neighborhood, were two rows of juniper trees. Each one rose up and punched the sky. Their white bark stood out stark against the darkening sky overhead, cool shadows ringing their feet.
"C'mon you pile of…" cursed Shemp, staring down the beetle's temperature gage.
As it was, the auto was threatening to overheat. Another thirty-something yards. That's it! The beetle would crest the hill and begin its cooling decent into Shemp's neighborhood, the auto receiving a rest on the ride down.
"C'mon… coooome ooon…!"
The juniper sentinels grew larger. They obscured more of the evening's purpling sky till the beetle finally coxed over the peak of the hilly street and began its smooth descent past the saluting canopies.
Shemp blew out air that seemed to echo from the engine behind him. Relief. He wiped his brow again. Years ago- when his hair was less thin –it seemed so much smaller.
After the hilly street, Shemp's neighborhood flattened and the beetle had no trouble puttering its way to his small single-story hovel.
Turning the corner from Juniper Row and onto Citrus Drive, Shemp found his generally quiet street much more alive with what felt like a lingering chaos.
The blue and red spinning police lights had long faded. Hours had passed since the black-and-white cruisers had gone. Yet Shemp could swear the cruisers' lights had left a dim impression in the air. He could tell that statements had been taken. Evidence collected. Photos snapped. All the boring stuff not shown on CSI or Law & Order was done. Without knowing anything had even happened, Shemp knew something had. He rubbed at his arms; goose pimples had sprouted amongst the dense hair below his rolled up sleeves.
All that was left to indicate the placid seclusion of the middleclass neighborhood had been shattered some time earlier during the day, was the broken glass from someone's windshield. A tow truck was still parked a couple doors down from Shemp's home as well. On the truck's flatbed rested a mangled piece of metal, the thing looking like a discarded piece of paper which had missed a wastebasket. You would have to look hard- squint too -to be able to see a shattered taillight or a crooked mirror.
Having parked and gotten out of the beetle, Shemp dreamily walked down his driveway, stopping before the curb. Passing the curb would mean exiting his world and entering what was left behind by the earlier chaos. Shemp wanted no part of it.
I'm staying put, he reminded himself as he placed a hand on his mailbox and looked down the street.
The limited looky-lous had thinned by now. Only the hardcore fans of Red Asphalt remained. A couple joggers took a quick peak while passing. Two kids walking back with baseball mitts slung over bats pointed put kept on with empty and hungry bellies. Someone three doors down came out to get the mail and glanced up, giving a shake of the head to protest, haven't-they-moved-that-trash-yet? The occasional motorist also slowed, picking up speed again when their necks reached the point of snapping back like rubberbands.
In general the gawking was limited by the time Shemp had returned. No ambulances were around, having picked up the bodies and zipped up each into bags or taken those alive to the hospital. Broken glass had been piled and cleared away. If there had been blood, it was washed away, probably the first thing done after removal of the bodies.
The curtain on this show had long been dropped. And there would be no encore.
Show over! thought Shemp.
Shemp grabbed from his mailbox a mingling of a few bills within a pile of throwaway grocery advertisements. He then took another look down the street.
There was something vaguely familiar about the crumpled auto on the flatbed. Looking more closely, the boring and drab man tried to rebuild the auto in his head. He unfolded its metal frame and smoothed out the body just as one does with a discarded piece of paper; there are too many wrinkles, of course, and he gave up, the picture ruined.
Impossible, he deemed after a few seconds. Fate came down on that car with its giant foot and crushed it like it was a tin can!
Shemp closed his mailbox and began to walk back up the driveway, sifting through the collection of instant dinners frozen in his icebox. What to eat tonight?
There's the chicken alfredo or the pizza? Nah, that's not enough. The orange chicken with wild rise would be…
"Excuse me, mister…"
Shemp had nearly crossed the sidewalk and stepped onto his property when a tiny squeak, barely audible, came from below his belly.
"What is this…? Who…?" Around and down he looked until his eyes fell on a little girl standing to his left, where the crabgrass of his front lawn turned into cracked and stained cement. No taller than a few heads over five himself, Shemp thought her tiny on first glance; she's eyelevel with his navel and had the look of a premie who would never be able to hit a growth stride. She could be seven or eight years-old, maybe?
The little girl waved at Shemp when he found her, her tiny hand sweeping in an arch, mimicking the rise and fall of the sun. This made him rub at his eyes, remembering the struggle this morning to get out of bed. There was no smile on her ashen face, though her cheeks flinched in an attempt, like she was trying but her muscles would not allow it.
There is something familiar about the little girl, as had been the smashed auto on the flatbed. Shemp just could not recall.
"My name's Dora," the little girl added.
"Oh. Um. Ah, hello?" said Shemp in return, lacking anything better to utter. He was surprised by the sudden appearance of the little girl. She appeared bold; she had come up and spoken to an adult all on her own. Shemp thought this uncharacteristic of someone her age.
Raising both eyebrows at the strangely familiar little girl, Shemp took in her abnormal dress.
She swam in an adult's black dress shirt, faded from years of washes and at least four sizes too big, the tips of her fingers barely peaking out of the unbuttoned cuffs. Underneath the black dress shirt she wore a black t-shirt depicting a friendly cartoon cat, the caption underneath identified the kitty as HELLO KITTY. Below a knee-length jean skirt she had decorated her legs in black tights striped neon purple, the black faded like the lap pool shirt. On her feet are bulky work-boots, also black and again coming from an adult's closed. The boots were left unlaced, threatening to trip the child. She looked awkward and silly in her mix-matched wardrobe, somewhat like a street urchin on Halloween.
Shemp took a step back from the little girl while pulling his mail protectively to his chest, she the caged animal at an urban zoo and he the zoo-goer trying not to provoke a skittish predator. What prompted this reaction of utter terror, you ask? Simple! Those eyes of the little girl's, curtained behind a sheet of greasy and matted raven hair, were pools of endless dark with jade green lights shinning out from the depths. Looking into them- as Shemp was doing this moment -was like looking into a black hole of despair trying to pull him in for a flying leap.
Behind those eyes there was nothing and that frightened Shemp.
This is what zombies or vampires look like, like REALLY look like! Thinking such things made him laugh inside, but it left him unsettled all the same.
Suddenly Shemp's hand grabbed at his chest, groping as if he had had a stroke. It felt like something was sucking him empty.
But as quick as the sucking feeling came… it was gone like the snapping of fingers. "HA-HA, just kidding!" said a god to the tiny ant as it pulled away the magnifying glass.
Falling to his knees and panting like a dog in need of water after a good walk, Shemp gulped down some air and mastered himself. He stretched back up as straight as his crocked posture would allow. When his breathing settled, Shemp saw the little girl was still standing before him, looking like nothing unusual had happened. Business as usual.
What! She wasn't going to call for help or reach out to help me!? Little brat!
"Are you lost?" He asked, after smothering his anger and watching the large steel-toes of her boots knock together several times in embarrassment.
Dora shook her head sheepishly, her dark hair flying this way and that as she lowered her gaze to the ground.
He looked down the street. All the looky-lous had run off, the tow truck was readying to leave.
"Do you belong to one of the neighbors?" He asked then, in a manner which suggested he thought of Dora as nothing more than a pet. A pet that is fun as a puppy, that is until it grows up and starts running off down the street, peeing on the carpet for attention and humping every fire hydrant along the street.
The dog pound for this mutt then, Shemp thought as he peaked over his shoulder to check the other direction.
No one was out looking for their lost puppy. The entire street appeared vacant.
The tow truck struggled into gear and its engine dug deep before lurching forward and taking off down the street the way Shemp had come from work.
Dora and Shemp were alone then.
Overhead street lamps were starting to come on, bathing the street in eerie amber.
Shemp looked down again at Dora and sighed, scratching his head.
"What is it that you want then?" He spat with a bite, thinking about how much time he had wasted on figuring out who this girl's owners were. To be fair, though, there was no evidence to say the strange urchin was lost. All the information she had offered up was her name, not even a surname for that matter. She really could have been a street-urchin, a concrete jungle animal looking for a handout.
Shemp immediately didn't want to bother with her. Casting her away became a priority on the day's check-list.
I'm hungry, he snarled to himself, rubbing his stomach. Not really, though. Which again was strange, he had skipped lunch. So many strange things have been happening to me today. Or maybe it was just Shemp getting annoyed, too close to his destination. Ten feet away was his front door and all he wanted was to get inside. Crazy people connect the strange things together to fate and stars. Not this number cruncher!
Grumbling under his breath, Shemp allowed his posture to slump and his head to cock on his shoulder in trepidation. A little more to the right and the man's head was going to tumble off his neck and fall to the ground.
Shemp shrugged and placed his hands bombastically on his hips, his briefcase thumped softly against his hip s he did. "Well now, what am I to do for you, uh?" He tried and failed to disguise his haste. "You should go back to… well… WHERE-EVER it is you're from, yeah?"
"You're late," Dora finally said, immediately after Shemp finished hollering.
"I am late?" Repeating Dora's words slowly, as if that would make more sense of the statement.
"You-are-late," she said again, flatly and a matter-of-factly.
Shemp narrowed his eyes. His face looked halfway between surprise and disbelief. "So you say? What am I late for then? I would say dinner, and that would be perfectly true as well as your fault, little missy. I doubt you are referring to that, though, but…"
Dora pointed up Shemp's driveway, not bothering to accompany the gesture with words.
Letting out a breath of exasperation, Shemp turned sharply and held up his hand in a manner that implied he was ready to give up and march right alongside his car and into…
But there was a problem. He couldn't walk beside the car and up the driveway. There was no beetle in the drive to march beside.
The beetle was gone.
"But where… Where did it… It was just…" he began but trailed off several times when he found his brain could not believe the words. Shemp was now pointing at the vacant spot in the driveway, to the spot where he had parked his car. This is the spot where his car had been before he had slumped down to the mailbox. He knew it. It was a fact.
He looked back toward the street, counting to ten. A mad grin spread across Shemp's face, sweat beginning to drip down from his brow. The beetle will be there… yes, it will be there when I look again. Just wait and see! He told himself this in the calmest manner he could muster.
Unfortunately, turning back toward the driveway, Shemp did not find his car there.
"Mr. Dennis Patrick Shemp!" called Dora, her voice croaking as she tried to make her words heard. She was clearly not used to speaking so loudly.
In the jade eyes Shemp gazed once more, his face twisting into a wreck much like the auto on the flatbed had been. There was still a swallowing void in those eyes. Looking into them reminded Shemp of a hollow puppet.
Does she even have soul? Am I going insane!?
"You are not insane," said Dora, reading Shemp's mind and correcting his thoughts. "You're just late."
"Late! LATE! LATE YOU SAY!?" whispered Shemp angrily, his head pounding as if it had been smacked against the dashboard of the disappearing beetle. He pressed his hands hard against his temples, squishing his face up while his chest heaved with hysteria. "What do you know? What are you doing here anyway!?"
He flung out his arms wide, ready to scream with the madness.
Dora pointed once more in answer, put this time it was to-
I need to go inside… report the beetle stolen… I need to ditch the puppy…
Instead she pointed to the street, to the place where Shemp's driveway sloped down and met the dark asphalt of the avenue.
Everything flooded back to him at the moment, understanding smacking him across his face. Hard.
As Shemp twisted his body around, flinging his briefcase and coat across the lawn in a tirade, he was once more traveling down the driveway.
He was driving, driving the beetle down the driveway. It's morning again. The sun is piercing his eyes mercilessly through the rearview mirror.
Passing the sidewalk there is a sad-looking little girl… it is Dora…the lost puppy! She is waiting. She is waiting for him.
A honking screams at Shemp, but there is no squeal of breaks to accompany it and the song is out of tune.
He looks to the right and sees the pickup truck barreling down the avenue. Its lights flash with warning.
Shemp watches, horrified and helpless. He is only able to watch as history plays itself out once more, his muscles playing out the scene. He tries in vane to put the car into first gear, to move back up the driveway. But that is futile, there is no time. No time to even to flip the pickup truck driver the bird as in take one of the tragic comedy of errors.
Darkness does not come. This second Shemp will not wake up later, blink, and find himself sitting at his office desk… not this time.
But nor does he feel the thin shell of the beetle push in upon him with the weight of the barreling pickup. The steering wheel does not mash down on his lap and crush his pelvis into a Thanksgiving side of mashed potatoes. Shemp's seat lifts him up and smacks his head against the upper lip of the door frame, around the window.
A chill spreads within the man. It makes him shutter. Quickly the freeze reaches his heart. Once more he feel his heart contract on itself, trying to roll up into a ball to fit inside the small pinhole that it's being sucked through so it can be lost in a void on the other side… a void like the little girl's eyes.
And then it is over. It is twilight and the accident is hours past. Shemp's mouth opens and he finds it dry. Chapped lips move but no words pass over them. All the breath in his lungs is gone, trying to speak only swirls around the dust settling in on the floor of his chest. He feels as empty inside as the little girl's eyes.
Looking down Shemp finds that sticking out from his body is a long sword, something Arnold Schwarzenegger would have wielded in some barbarian film. Heavy and awkward, only Hercules could hope his thirty labors would build up the muscle needed to lift this iron weapon…
And yet the little girl holds it with ease, using it to stab him through the middle.
"You were late," Dora tells the gasping Shemp as she wraps his small hands around the sword's blade. There is no pain. No blood. He cuts not his flesh, nor feels the edge across his palms. "This morning you died and you ran away from me. I waited but you didn't come back. So I waited longer… you came back eventually."
"I died?" Shemp manages to ask, pretending he had not heard her or seen the actual ending from earlier. Perhaps she was playing and this was all just a joke. HA! Yeah, that explains it! Oh yes, the sword would pull out and the wound inside him would heal. Oh yes… a joke.
Dora nodded unenthusiastically, this is business as usual for her and she's heard all the excuses and peas to gods and holy creators.
Then the wispy form of Dennis Patrick Shemp, no more solid than fog or the morning mist off the ocean's cost, fades into the little girl's now gleaming blue blade.
His last scream, a strangled wind, sends the dried up brown leaves into a fit around Dora's bulky work boots.
All day Shemp had been gone from here, moving between the flesh and spirit, a rat in the walls of the living.
Dora did not wait long to take her leave after her business was done and her blade gleamed with spirit. She strolls down the deserted avenue with her sword hefted over a shoulder, moving outside the circular amber lights attempting to spotlight her. A phantom fog swells about her heels, seemingly no more alive than Shemp had been all that day.
Miles turned into steps to the little girl when she walked into the shadow between two street lamps on one street and out from the shadow between two other lamps on another street. Dora always had a faint feeling of disconnect when riding the shadow rails, like her mind was being torn apart and pieced back together, a quilt of ragged squares. The smells were different going from one street to the next. The air was sometimes thicker, other times thinner. She would be cold one minute, hot the next when it came humid on the other side. It confused her senses.
So she let her mind drift till she walked in a kind of half-sleep. From the suburban community named after trees and the one with all the feminine street names. To the streets which weave like a river of cash around malls and large chain stores. Past the tight road which kept stride for several miles with the curvy freeway. And finally to the soberly painted industrial buildings shoved against the mountain separating the sleepy community from its northwest neighbor.
Dora walked. Her sword dragged behind her, not because it was heavy but because she thought little of it. It was a tool to her, her childlike wonder of the world beat down by the routine of logging it around with her during her shift. Not even the way its blade sparkled like starlight interested Dora.
This is no life for me, brooded the girl while adding a wet lippy sigh.
Around her calves the black, oversized dress shirt flapped. The tongues of her large boots bowed forward and back up again, while inside her toes curled to keep the boots on. She took short steps. Never showing any sign of tire.
Eventually she came to the industrial end of the bedroom community. You could see the red and yellow streaks of car lights from the freeway half a mile away. The building she stood in front of was the color of a foggy sky, a red stripe painted around the edge of the roof.
She entered by the front door, which was always unlocked. The hallway beyond as dark as her nightmares.
The sliver of moonlight edging through the cracked door barely lit the narrow hallway. Everything was pitch-black after four feet, an inky mess of shadows that could easily trip the sheerest of feet.
Dora navigated it as if her jade eyes were lamps in the gloom.
Behind her dragged the sword, the starry light of Dennis P Shemp's spirit radiating only a small fingernail's width around the blade. The sword scrapped the tile beneath the carpet, making a sound that when compared to nails on a chalkboard sounded like a Straus composed symphony. The sound was a ravenous ripping paired was the rough scrap of concrete.
At some point down the hallway the scrapping halted.
Then the scrapping became shorter, transforming into the sound of an out-of-tuned violin being plucked mercilessly. A hard thud ended each pluck while in the hallway the sounds gradually faded way down the deep well of the descending stairs.
Cool dreamy blue.
From outside the door the light from within the room ahead appeared a soft comely. And yet, Dora had to hold her stomach after taking a whiff of what drifted from the cracked open door.
The stench is of wet and dead earth, failing to imitate a homecoming meal.
When the door is open he'll be in there, Dora reminded herself mechanically, as if she were keeping herself from doing something stupid. Something she knew she should not. It's locked when he leaves. Where that is…
Dora stood outside the door, her tiny form surrounded by the inky murk of the dark stairwell she had just descended, a light blue light cutting her tiny form in half down the middle. She did not move, not yet. Pushing the door open further and going inside would mean stepping into a boiling caldron. On tonight's menu… stewed white girl marinated in her own fear. YUM-OH!
Tittering from side-to-side nervously, inches from toppling over, Dora chewed on her lip. Peering down at her oversized work-boots, her hair draped itself over her face. She didn't want to look at her destination.
I HATE going in there, she reminded herself. A stiff sob issued from behind the curtain of raven hair. She sniffed up what could only be a string of snot dripping from her nose. She quickly wiped the remainder away on her sleeve while her other hand rung the leather wrapped handle of the sword.
A drop of blood fell from somewhere behind the hair curtain. PLUNK. It fell to the tile floor.
Dora looked up and tossed back her hair out of her eyes. It stubbornly fell back but her jade eyes could still look out between the clumped, greasy strands. She licked her lips. There was no blood, not now, and there would be no bite marks in the soft, pink flesh.
The girl forcefully willed herself through the door that so resembled something that could guard a bank vault.
The room was cool. There was no heat from a steaming child-sized cauldron. Unseen vents high above the shadowed ceiling were blowing cold air akin to strong gusts of ocean wind.
Dora looked around the room, getting her bearings, though she knew the room well, it paid to know any changes.
The room itself resembled an old parlor in which Victorian Era businessmen might sit about in smoking jackets, puffing on ridiculous pipes will pontificating about society and economics. It is circular, all the bookcases bending to flow with the walls. All the joined bookcases are made of a wood long beginning to rot from dampness, and all of them stretch up so high each appears to narrow toward the top and chock the ceiling. Dora often felt a sickening sense of vertigo when following the bookcases upward, past the cobwebbed chandelier and into the shadows. The strangest thing about these bookcases: they didn't hold books. However, what they did display captivated Dora more than any story could have hoped to or ever would do so. All of those like the little girl could not help the magnetic nature of-
"What took you so long?" asked the man who sat in a magnificent, centrally placed highbacked armchair with his heels kicked up on a stool. His voice was snide and venomous, his words sliding into Dora's heart and strangled the organ.
Dora did not answer, instead attempting to drag the sword toward him. The iron weapon appeared to gain a hundred pounds when entering the parlor, making it impossibly cumbersome to move. Throwing her back into it, both her hands were required to pull the weapon across the concrete floor and onto the rust-colored carpet that encircled the man and his armchair. She dug her heels in as she heaved and grunted with pursed lips. Tears were squeezing out of her eyes as she moved the weapon a couple more inches with each trying pull.
"C'mon… c'mon, little monkey!" goaded the man, not giving any indication that he was going to get up from his comfy seat and lend a hand. "Bring the sword forward. Bring it here," he pointed a twiggy finger to a spot a couple steps out from his stool. "You have lagged all-day in bringing me the spirit of our dear Mr. Shemp. Did you think your job was in need of a reward, hmm? Maybe you thought it OK to stop for an ice-cream cone? Or perhaps you deserved some toffee or penny candy, huh?"
None of these words helped Dora in moving the sword quicker; all they did was manage to further break open the dam holding back her tears.
"Stop whining!" He chuckled nastily. "I gave you one name for today, all the others had at least twice as more and returned within half an hour of their last pick-up."
Dora finally managed to lug the sword on to the carpet, after which she unceremoniously fell to her knees, clutching the stitch right below her left rips. Still she continued to weep behind the curtain of hair, trying to keep quiet and not indulge the bondsman.
Ignoring Dora's lamentation, the man continued on his rant. "So, little monkey… are you going to just kneel there and ignore me? Hmm? Sometimes I think using zombies would be more efficient… except," he paused to consider this option, "except those deadbeats are starting to get expensive, more are becoming freelancers! Some nerves of those retards have, hmm?!"
All of Dora's limbs were on fire. Her Hello Kitty shirt was sticking to her chest. A small headache was wrapping around her brain and strangling her thoughts; she was unsure if this was because of exhaustion or the man's poisonous words weaving themselves inside her like a snake looking for a mousy meal. Nonetheless, her aching head was not the worst part… The worst of it was the smell of wet ash. Dora felt like she was going to vomit. The man reeked of the death.
When the man began rapping his slim fingers tirelessly against the arm of his chair, Dora shook the hair from her face and managed to look at the man who made Freddy or Jason look like acceptable prom dates.
As he slouched low in the highbacked chair, the light that encircled the room seemed to shrink away from his face. He was bone thin, sickly so. The shadows of the highbacked chair ran sharply into his long, sharp skeletal features. His flesh was chalk-white and pulled tightly over his ghoulish features… almost like it were not his own but borrowed and hastily applied for fear he would be late for a dinner party. His nose was smashed and broken against his face, two nostrils staring up and out. A pair of prince-nez shades obscured the man's eyes; who knew how they stayed put high on the bridge of his almost-non-existent nose. Shoulder-length jet black hair cascaded thinly down from a high, flat brow. He wore a three-piece, dark gray, thick-pinstripe suit. A black dress shirt like Dora's had been buttoned up to the base of his slim neck, a skull centered bolo-tie leering out from between the wings of the collar. And finally, a pair of cowboy boots was on his feet, dusted as if he had just walked through a pit of bones and crushed them in his wake.
Dora gulped down the knot that had gotten stuck in her throat and quickly looked up at the bookcases.
The almost dead man steepled his fingers thoughtfully as he considered Dora and her lateness, a boss trying to figure out whether to reprimand the employee for accruing overtime when such was not allowed.
"So, little monkey," began the man, "can you explain yourself?" He said this with an incredulous tone, not believing Dora could explain her delay. Perhaps this is why he smiled so widely, his skin threatening to slice open on his bones or maybe simply crack with the tightening.
"If you can give an account of your actions, that is, little monkey!"
He was daring Dora now.
He just wants to slap his knee and have a good laugh today!
Silence was passed between this man and Dora, he waiting and she… half past the Milky Way.
Behind the highbacked chair the bookcases loomed, their contents untouchable gods a top a heavenly mountain. Dora wanted to scale the mountain, concur it. As it was said before… on the shelves sat not an anthology of books becoming and collecting dust. Yet the shelves were far from bare and vacant of interesting items. The items displayed on the warping wood mesmerized Dora each time she set foot in the parlor. These items were what kept her coming back to the nearly dead man at the end of her days, the same as a child peaking into a storefront at the newest 10-speed on the block.
Along the shelves- sunk in lumpy, stained cushion -were hundreds if not thousands of glass orbs. Each of the orbs was no larger than an orange. And all of them contained a swirling substance. Dora could only describe the stuff trapped within the glass as thick morning mist, a vibrant blue mist.
Dora licked her lips. Her hands were balling up into fists, her nails anxiously wracking the threadbare rug. Rocking backwards and forwards, the girl wanted to spring forward. She wanted to dash around the nearly dead man and his luxurious chair to snatch one of the misty orbs for her own. She wanted to hold it in her hands. She wanted to hold it close to her chest. She wanted to break it. All of those orbs had to be broken. Each was fragile and breakable, looking as if they had DO NOT TOUCH signs taped across their fronts. That idea made Dora wanted to break them open even more… or maybe just one.
"Tut-tut, little monkey," scolded the man with a little snigger. He was amused, watching Dora as her mouth dropped further each second she stared at the orbs. Drool was beginning to collect at the corner of her mouth and slide down her chin.
In one impossible movement the nearly dead man leaned forward and grasped Dora's chin in one grand swipe, pulling her gaze back to his face. No longer was a he smiling. His mouth had scrunched up into a snarl, the flesh around it wrinkling loosely.
"Listen here!" He demanded in a low whisper. "Listen, little monkey… tell me just what took you so long to collect Mr. Shemp's soul? Huh?"
The smell of wet ash was drifting up Dora's nose now, the moisture clinging to the inside of each nostril and making her cough wetly. The nearly dead man in dusty boots let go in disgust and brushed off his suit as if something foul had just jumped on it.
"If you think," he began, spitting. "If you think that staring and wanting one will get you one," he shook his finger at her, "you are sorely mistake. That was not our deal. You know that, I told you as much after they left you with me!"
Dora said something, but it was so low the nearly dead man had to lean in close to hear it. The earthy pungent smell made her speak up.
"Charon, he didn't know he died," Dora exclaimed with indignation.
"You say his spirit just walked away after getting spanked by the pickup?" the nearly dead man named Charon said, amused by this prospect. He chuckled and then scratched his boney chin, which unhinged his jawbone.
Dora nodded. Getting up she stomped her feet as she crossed her arms, as if this could shield her from the nearly dead man and the magic he wielded. Each booted strike made a clap-clap sound.
"The spirit went somewhere. I didn't know where," she said this quickly, recovering when she felt Charon's gaze narrow on her in disbelief. "The car went SMASH," she punched her right hand into her waiting left in demonstration. "POW! The body was left over, lots of blood and stuff too. But the spirit didn't come out. I thought it had gotten stuck. But it hadn't, I looked… I took a look inside him, I peaked, nothin' there."
Charon nodded, still scratching his chin, taking in the whole short story. His jaw shifted to the right unnaturally with a clack-click. The sound made Dora's shoulders nearly bang her ears.
Sighing, Dora went on. "Usually the spirit just stands by and takes in the whole thing… the death and stuff. This one seemed to float past it, like it had to get on with the day and this whole death-thing was… well… stupid!"
"This one, Mr. Shemp, must have been a creature of habit," said Charon, more for his own benefit. "Some people simply go through life, the motions of it. They don't take in the sights and experiences around them; they don't stop to smell the roses. They don't appreciate death and so they over look life. Shame. This mutton-head must have forgotten that everyone has an inconvenient appointment with the Doors, like going to the dentist… except with more drills. Heh."
Laughing to himself, Charon paused and took in a deep, wheezy breath. Then he said, "I never forget."
"I'll tell you the secret to life, little monkey," he said while leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs at the knees so one leg hung dead over the other. His erect knee nearly pointed up toward the ceiling he was so tall. "I tell you this: Be a tourist. This place is not a place for humans anyway; we're vacationing from the bigger picture. We're escaping, in more ways then one. Enjoy the sights and sounds of this strange dirt place. After this life… it's back to the grind-"
He suddenly paused, realizing something.
"Wait a minute, little monkey," Charon added when he finally noticed a big hole in Dora's story. He paused to ponder if he really wanted to know and quickly decided. "If Mr. Shemp spent all-day playing ghost… just what did you do while waiting?"
Dora's eyes had wandered back to the misty orbs on the shelves again. When she realized that a question had been asked, she opened her mouth to answer. Nothing came out. She scratched her head to rouse her memories of the day, or so it appeared. In actuality… she remembered the earlier summer afternoon very well.
"HEY! Do you wanna play ball with us?"
Despite the aggressive impertinence of the tone attached to the voice, Dora had a difficult time hearing the words. The voice questioned what the little girl was doing, that sitting by the curb and staring out at the street was stupid and pointless. Why do that when you could be…
Dora paid little attention to the voice. She merely stared at the spot in the avenue where the car had backed out of the driveway and into the path of an oncoming pickup truck. The smell of burned rubber was still in the air; a confused trail of tire marks, like blood from a struggling body being dragged away, led to the spot where a smashed Volkswagen beetle lay broken and limp. Traveling between the two marks was a line of gasoline, ending in a pool around the backside of the beetle.
Laid out beside the metal corpse is the beetle's bent door, looking like a peeled back can lid; discarding it had allowed access to driver's body.
An hour ago Dora watched the paramedics pull Mr. Dennis P Shemp's spiritless form from the wreckage. Right before her wide eyes they then began the lifesaving, but futile measures to resuscitate him.
Compressions… breathe… compressions… breathe… compressions…
"It was too late," Dora sighed, letting her chin fall into her waiting hands being supported by her knees. "He was gone before they got here. I saw the spirit go POP!" She pressed together lips and pushed out air from her mouth. The black curtain of Dora's hair shuttered as if against a gentle gust. "Then it was looking at the body. It looked for a second at the body and ran away. POP!" She blew another puff of air from her lips before a frown creased them.
That was almost an hour ago. The ambulance had already left, body zipped up in a black bag rather than sucking on a respirator in the hospital taxi.
"What is she talking about, Jaq?" asked a new voice. This one cracked with the first signs of male puberty and the efforts of trying too hard to sound grown-up.
"Don't know, Teddy," said the first voice in a casual way. "Probably talkin' about the stiff they carted away. Saw it from my kitchen window. My mum wouldn't let me out to get a better look, though; said it wasn't our business. Didn't stop her from crackin' the blinds and lookin' like she was about to hit the floor. Dang! Teddy, look at the P.O.S.!"
"Yeah! I wonder if the guy messed himself?" asked the second voice. "I heard people do that right before they die."
"I don't think I would, even if I knew it's comin', right before the SMACK!"
A sound like a fist hitting calloused flesh came when the first voice uttered that last word.
"No," corrected Dora, shaking her head. It was clear by now she's an expert in the mysteries of death. "Mr. Shemp died right after the 'SMACK'. But then he left."
There was silence. Dora was used to silence. At the Orphanage not many of the kids speak to each other; the kids there have only one thing in common and no on wants to speak of it after their shift.
"Did you know the guy?" asked the first voice.
Dora stopped watching the police officer taking the statement from the shaken pickup driver and turned around to face the two voices.
Two kids were standing on the sidewalk, a boy and girl no older than a couple years than Dora appeared. Ten year, was more than a good guess. The boy is blocky and has a mess of unkempt, whitish-blonde hair trying to fight its way out from underneath a Dodgers baseball cap. The hair color seemed bright against his flushed skin tone. Beside the candidate for a summer fat camp, the girl stood with a confidence that could only have been beaten into her from several older brothers or the need to be one of the 'boys'. She could have easily passed for a boy, but in a year that would be impossible to hide; already little nubs were pocking out from her shirt. Sprouting from the back of the tomboy's ballcap is the tuff of a ponytail. She's willowy, tall for a girl, and athletic. She could easily keep up with any of the 'boys'.
"No, I didn't know him," Dora answered, her eyes darting back and forth between the kids and the smashed beetle in the street.
"You knew his name," said the tubby boy, under his tongue a fuse was ready to be lit. "You said, 'Mr. Shemp died right after the…'"
"Doesn't mean I knew him," said Dora after a pause to think about how she would answer.
The tomboy swiftly punched the boy in the arm; it was hard enough to make him take a step back and rub the now tender spot. Quickly he noticed her eyeing him disapprovingly. Such a look demanded the boy suck it up and take the lump like a man. There would be no pansies in this girl's regime.
"Don't mind, Teddy," said the girl. "His mom skipped town and now he don't have anyone to teach him manners."
"HEY! My mom didn't leave us!" Teddy exclaimed with rosy blush in his chubby cheeks. "You were just over, Jaq… last night. My mom made meat loaf, remember?!"
With a wolfish grin that was not going to be hidden, Jaq snapped back at Teddy. "Yeah, and before that she cleaned the booboo on your knee from when you tried to slide home in the game yesterday, kissed it better before slappin' on the Band-Aid too." She looked down at the raven haired Dora, "He tried to steal home but didn't make it, five feet from the plate and he got tagged out. He complained all the way home! Do you believe it? Well, you should if you don't."
Jaq laughed hardily and deeply, snorting. Taking another step back, Teddy tipped the bill of his cap down and stared at his shoes sheepishly. The untied laces he found gave him something to be distracted over.
"My name's Jaq," the tomboy introduced herself. "This here is Theodore, or as I call him Teddy." She hooked a thump down at her shoelace-tying companion, who was just about as soft as the stuff toy he took his name from.
Raising her arm, eyes still focused on the wreck, Dora waved a floppy shirtsleeve at the two kids in a hello gesture. It was a friendly enough wave, but distant and almost shooing.
"What's your name?" Jaq demanded when Dora gave none.
Dora seemed beside herself. No one had taken much of an interest in her, let along continued to do so apart from a quick glance and grumble about her strange clothes. And who wouldn't? She wore an all-black gothic ensemble; t-shirt, skirt, her tights were black stripped with purple; on her feet were large workman's boots, and her black shirt had a Hello Kitty face on it. It screamed I am different! Not too mention she's pale skinned and short as a kids usually just sneered at her. But this girl was asking her name, like a possible friend would do.
Now that is strange. Not that Dora was trying to attract attention; in her day-to-day life of observing car wrecks and sitting on curbs, it was best not attract attention.
"Dora," said the little girl hoarsely, as if this was the first time she had uttered her name. "My name is Dora."
"So, Dora," Jaq went on. "You up for a game?" She turned toward the wreckage and the cleanup that was going on. "All the cool stuff over there is over, body gone and all, blood's even cleaned up. Teddy and I are going to meet the guys and play. We do it almost everyday while we're on break. Wanna come? We can always use another in the outfield."
Was the girl now asking if Dora wanted to play with her and her friends? Dora looked around for the hidden cameras, suspiciously.
How long has it been? She wondered to herself, looking back at the two kids and seeing their anxiousness. They were teetering on their heels, tennis shoes all ready another block down the road. It's been a year, maybe a little longer? She guessed and her lips quivered. I'm not sure. The thought made the dagger twist tighter in her heart. How long has it been since I felt the sun on my shoulders and the sweat sticking my undies up my butt while I kicked a ball down the field to score a goal?! Or since I sat down under a tree to read… to escape! When was it I saw my parents and sister last…?
I want to escape! I wanna be normal again.
Teddy kept looking down the street, ringing the handle of the bat in his hands tighter and tighter. He wanted to get going; he, like Dora, could feel the sun on his shoulders and his undies wedging up his large buttocks. That is a BIG wedgie, mind you.
Dora wanted to go with them, to have a sweat soaked wedgie of her own all day, maybe even get sun burn. I'm getting bored with this other life of mine! Not that I ever asked to hunt in the first place.
Dora rose to her feet and stepped toward the sidewalk. Jaq and Teddy turned and made to fall in, believing they had a new player for their game today.
Charon is going to slaughter you, a voice in Dora's head told her solemnly. Good chance he'll enjoy doing the beating too! Go ahead… let him have his fun!
She tried to laugh along with this roguish voice, but the chortle was filled with doubt.
A single tear gathered under the little girl's eye and pooled before running a track down her pale cheek. She touched her chest. Groping at a phantom pain? Perhaps the emptiness that is there?
Once more Dora looked at the squashed beetle. This time she did not look away. She reached behind her curtain of hair and wiped the tear from her cheek.
"I can't play now," she told the two kids. "I've gotta wait here… for my… mum." That hurt. She paused and breathed deeply, her chest shaking while holding back another tear. My mum. The thought hurt because the little girl wanted it to be the truth so badly, not a lie. "Sorry, thanks anyways."
"You sure?" asked Jaq, turning to look at Dora.
"Let her go, Jaq, she doesn't want to," coxed Teddy in a whisper to his companion's ear, so Dora would not hear. He took another step in what must have been retreat. "Jaq, this one is weird, leave her."
A long series of clanking noises could be heard, the rattling of death's bounds. In time with this eerie rattling was a cracking. The crushed beetle was being dragged onto the flatbed of a towtruck. Not a lot of options were available. Three of the four wheels of the auto had been tucked under its belly so the hubcaps lay flat and pinned. The towtruck driver had opted to hook it up to the chains and pull it kicking and screaming onto the bed of his truck. The beetle writhed and shook with resistance, some of its metal paneling grabbing the asphalt and offering resistance like nails digging in for a fight.
Eventually the pile of scrap gave in and rested atop the towtruck.
"I'll be back later for your truck," said the towtruck driver to the owner of the pickup which had struck the beetle. The towtruck driver scaled his own vehicle and slammed the door shut. Sticking his head out the window he bellowed, "Your truck should be fine on the side of the road till then, I think."
Between sentences, the driver of the pickup waved his grudging acknowledgment. There was nothing he could do with an engine flattened into a breakfast special.
Dora watched from the sidelines and heaved sadly. She crossed her legs and plunked herself back down on the curb to wait.
Mr. Shemp's gotta come back sometime, she told herself, but with little hope. Pop! Her mind reminded her.
What would she do if Shemp didn't come back? What if he decided to wander the land, sneaking up behind people and screeching BO? Shrugging, Dora knew that would get old soon. No one but Charon and hunters like herself could see the disembodied.
Dora thought about the nearly dead man who everyday for the last… How long has it been? She still couldn't remember. Anyway, she thought about that man who at each shift handed her a Post-It note with written on it the name of a person, their death time and place of that death. She remembered his boney hand… the dusty popping of his knuckles the first time he took her…
I don't wanna remember that, not right now, not again.
Dora felt a tap on her shoulder. She began to turn her head but then something swatted the other side right above her ear.
A book dropped into her lap.
She rubbed at her cranium and picked up the volume fanning out in her crossed legs. Flipping through it she saw it was a comic, a black and white graphic novel the size of a paperback book. The title read:
BATTLE ANGEL ALITA – VOLUME ONE
Colored that of freshest blood, the cover depicted a young woman- a cyborg -with molting wings of metal. She was near to the point of being scrap but was still crawling on, refusing to lie down. Immediately something rose in Dora's chest. Was it a liking or a connection to this kick-ass chick on the cover? Was it a need to want to know her story? How could this chick go on despite her broken-down state, a step from the scrap yard?
Jaq had come back. How long had the tomboy been walking down the street before she came back? Had she even left? Seconds or minutes could have passed.
"Thanks," said Dora meekly from behind her curtain of dark hair. "Yeah, it's really cool. Are you letting me…?"
"YO… JAQ! LET'S HIT IT!" called Teddy. He quickly shrunk down when Jaq brandished her fist at him, scowling.
When Teddy began kicking the pavement under his feet, evidently the only thing he could bully that wouldn't shout or hit back, Jaq turned back to Dora and looked down at her. The tomboy shrugged and threw up her right hand, the schoolbag over her shoulder settling comfortably on her shoulder then.
"It's yours," she said but sternly pointed a finger down at Dora. "But you're coming someday to the field, Dora, to do me a solid and play some ball. It's the field next to the high school, you know it? Good! You're a little skinny but you and me, I think we could kick the dirt into these other guy's faces. And I am never wrong." Jaq smiled, a quirky thing of bravado, and then laughed.
There was excitement and triumph in Jaq's face over the future which she had just prophesied. Already she saw homeruns and big outs, all compliments of her and Dora. Dora had no idea why Jaq thought she could play well; she was shorter than a tadpole and scrawnier than a toothpick.
I can pick up a really big sword!
That put a lop-sided smile on Dora's face, even if for a brief second. It was awkward and told a story of a girl who had lost what it meant to smile and had just glimpsed that wonder again.
Jaq gave her a light tap on the shoulder and ran after Teddy, who bent forward and began to pant, attempting to get a good lead so he wouldn't have to work so hard to keep up with the springy tomboy.
"IT'S A MANGA!" screamed Jack from cupped hands. "YOU READ IT BACKWARDS! START FROM THE BACK!"
"I like her," Dora decided with a nod. "I like her a lot!"
In front of the little girl sitting on the curb, the towtruck dragged itself from its brief nap and moved forward with a little effort. Dora didn't even look up when she heard it. She opened the manga- from the back -and began to read.
It was possible not even half a minute had gone by during her mind's file shuffling. Dora was still scratching her head, flipping through the filing system of her brain to review the record of the day. In that short period of time, Charon had begun to snore, loudly. His head had drifted to his shoulder and rested there with his jaw slack and hanging unhinged. A black, opaque liquid was dripping from one corner of his open mouth, his shriveled lips flapping as air puffed out and then was drawn in again. His snoring sounded like a speedboat motor to Dora. She did not laugh.
Suddenly he roused himself with an ugly snort, as if a large noise had disturbed his sleep. The atmosphere in the parlor was still. The only sound the dry popping of the nearly dead man's bones as he stretched like a waking cat. "Dear me! Did I nod off?" he asked, girlishly.
Sighing, Dora slammed the filing cabinet in her head and rolled her eyes behind the vale of her raven black hair. What a jerk!
Charon grinned, snapped his jaw back into place with a good and loud crack!
"Charon, can I go," asked Dora with a yawn, snatching another look at the misty orbs all around her. Which one is mine?
"In a moment," snarled Charon in answer, "we still have to conclude the business of the evening."
The foot stole went flying, kicked by Charon as he stood up from his chair. The bookcase the stool hit creaked and the orbs on the shelves jangled on their pillows. Dora gasped, letting out a little squeak before she could bring her hands up to cup her mouth. The mist within the fifty or so orbs swirled and opened, parting in the shape of gaping O's, mouths opening to let out a chorus of agonized howls. A few seconds later things settled and all was well. Dora relaxed.
Stretching his lanky limbs, Charon pulled himself up to his full height, an awkward six foot eight from pointed boot toe to the bald landing pad atop his head. More of his joints cracked loudly again, much the same as if dislocated and being popped back into place. Then he shoved the highbacked chair off the rug with a backwards kick.
The oval rug was now vacant except for the queerly heavy sword, the girl, and the dead hunched man.
Dora stepped back off the carpet automatically.
Charon stretched his hands up and did a little wave, twisting his writs around and around while at the same time wiggling his stick-thin fingers. He looked like a magician a parent would hire for their kid's birthday party. A magician that got more shrieks than laughs from the kiddies, pulling the bones of rabbits out of his top hat.
Bending his knees out- his legs stork-like in their absurd length -Charon next jabbed his fingers down at the floor.
Nothing happened. At first.
Dora rolled her eyes and shrugged in a get-on-with-it fashion.
Scratching his head and mussing what was left of his hair, Charon thought for a second. When what had been eluding his brain was found, he snapped his fingers and bared a set of gleaming white teeth that had been misplaced in his mouth.
He stomped the floor with his right foot three times. A fourth followed, either for good luck or perhaps just a slip of his memory.
When Charon pulled back the rug, dust bunnies fluttered up from the remaining threads of the carpet before fluttering back down again into the newly revealed hole where before the footstool had sat. TA-DA!
The sword turned over in midair, now thrillingly light as a feather.
From the cavernous pit an echo called out in agony, long since attempting to reach the top from where its owner was trapped.
The sword began to hover over the pit, point down.
Without waiting for some-sort of command to do so, the blade began to bleed. A blue gleam leaked out, dripping down the shaft of razor sharp steel. Against the magically forged metal the essence of Dennis Patrick Shemp screamed one last appeal. However, there was no call from the governor coming; the liquid essence that had been sucked up in to the sword's blade flowed freely.
Charon stood over the hellish hole, his lips twitching in silent amusement, mocking and angry. This is not something he enjoys.
Contrary to the nearly dead man, Dora stood by with a vacant expression on her face.
Yeah… okay. Are we done yet, I've seen this episode before, it's in reruns!
When the last drop of Dennis Patrick Shemp's essence dripped into the dark pit- his howl drifting behind like a faint memory trying to leave a lasting mark on the world left behind -the hole was covered again with the threadbare rug. Charon moved his chair back on the carpet unceremoniously and retrieved the foot stole in turn. Once more the footstool was set over the hole. It didn't go plunk, it didn't drop in.
"Now can I go, Charon?" asked Dora, dancing in place as if she needed to use the restroom, badly.
"Yes… yes… go on up!" He waved her off, walking over to a nearby side table to pick up a top hat sitting there. He also took up a staff of ash, two inches taller than him and thick than his spindly wrist.
Dora grasped the sword from midair without another word and began to drag it back toward the door. This time she heaved it with more vigor, her goal closer and just over the coming hill. Charon waited at the door for her, tapping his foot and pulling a pocket watch from his vest.
"You're making me late now, little monkey," he hissed at her coldly.
"Hold your horses," Dora said under her short breathes.
"What was that, little monkey?"
"Nothing!" she said quickly, dragging the sword over the threshold and out of the parlor.
Charon locked the room with an old-fashion key most common in Victorian homes.
"Same time tomorrow morning," Charon reminded her. "I was thinking about giving you two names, but the debacle today has soured that idea. If you ever think to get your spirit back, I would refrain from allow spirits to take holiday. Little monkey, do you get me?"
Charon bent down almost at a ninety degree angle and waited for his answer.
Dora's shoulders curled up to her ears and a whined betrayed her.
"I… I understand, sir," Dora answered, folding steel into her voice.
Thankfully in the dark stairwell her unhappiness and the tracks of fresh tears were hidden. It was better that way. Better not to argue either. She couldn't hide all the emotional from her face, not yet; and it would be that weakness that would destroy her in Charon's Orphanage.
Charon feeds on our misery, I don't wanna feed him!
Yet in the end, coming back in the morning to receive another batch of names, or maybe just one name again… what else could she do? The man dressed like a cowboy stuck in Victorian England knew there was nowhere else for the children like Dora to go. And Dora came back, each shift she came for her name(s)… she had to. If for nothing then to just look at the orbs and want, to remember, to remind her of what she was working towards.
Up on the topmost floor of the industrial building that seemed likely to be sitting over a pit in hell, was the dormitory the hunters like Dora slept in. For lack of a better term… it was 'home', or the closest thing that any of the hunters could find comfort in at the end of the day.
That was it, though. At the end of the day, each and every one of them had a place to come. But it was just not a comfortable abode, no matter how much they deluded themselves into believing otherwise.
Dora stood at the door and look in. Loft-style, the large room's other details were indistinguishable in the dark.
From the windows that ran the length of the room a grey haze drifted down across the mounds of sleeping hunters. Each little hill rose and fell with deep sleep, most tossing and turning within the grips of nightmares.
Snores ground the silence here and there, like rusty saw blades against metal.
Terrible moans escaped in gasps from those who could not escape their endless fates even in dreams, their own ghosts haunting their dreams as well as the parlor in the basement.
Dora pulled off her large boots and stepped gingerly between the sleeping mounds to a small space were she could lie down. The space was where a single shaft of light angled in, the space she had claimed for herself. All of her black attire faded to navy and the wrinkles deepened with murky cracks as she passed underneath that light. Carefully she placed her sword down to rest near her sleeping bag. She peeled off the oversized dress shirt. The white face of Hello Kitty seemed to bask in the moonlight and glow.
Settling down into a lotus-style position, Dora pulled a coarse blanket across her lap, its edges frayed and its size too small to keep a larger body warm. It was perfect for her tiny form.
From within the folds of the dress shirt she pulled the manga that Jaq had given her. Already the spine was cracked and well-worn, the edges dog-eared.
And although she had read the chapters within the manga three times during the course of the day waiting for Shemp's spirit to return home, she fanned the manga pages and bowed her head.
She began to read it again, her form a dark outline jutting out of the bumpy plane that carpeted the room, struggling to pull herself out of the quick sand trying to drag her under.