THAT LITTLE GIRL

A Short Story

By

Clinton D Harding

PART TWO

***

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.

EEEEEEERRR…

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.

EEEEEEEERRR…

At some point down the hallway the scrapping halted.

EEEERR-

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.

EEER… THUNK.

EEER… THUNK.

EEER… THUNK.

EEER… THUNK.

***

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 monkeytell 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.

Then again…

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?

"Like it?"

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.

THE END