Archive for April, 2011

Storytime: Life.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Herman was diagnosed at birth.  The nurse was the one that drew the short straw and had to tell his parents the bad news.
“I’m sorry,” she told them.  “It looks like he tests positive.”
Their faces drained away like spilled ice cream, and the father began to cry in that very tiny and sad way that extremely manly men do, much like babies.
“It can’t be!” said the mother.  Normally she wouldn’t say things like that, but in her drained state she’d completely lost the will to put the effort into forming original sentences and had fallen back on quoting her favourite shows.
“I’m afraid so,” said the nurse.  “Your son has contacted Life.”

The media got a good half-week of story out of the news, all told.  A big article with a bigger headline, a followup, an interview, and then some petty debates in the reader’s letters column that devolved into ad hominem arguments and bickering.  Several papers saw a slightly increase in readership and at least one intern was promoted.
Sometimes, when a very bad thing has happened, to know that it has helped someone else, somewhere, is not at all comforting in the slightest.

As Herman grew, his parents began to hope.  He played listlessly with his toys, he cried monotonously through his nights, he stared blankly at anyone who spoke to him.
“Maybe they were wrong,” said his father hopefully.
“Maybe!” said the mother, something extremely deep-rooted within her cultural, social, and mental context suggesting that agreeing with an idea may very well make it true.
And then, right in front of their eyes, Herman reached out to fumble aimlessly with his blocks, made them into a neat little tower, and knocked it over.  He laughed.
His father’s face crumpled up like thrice-used tinfoil, and his mother’s lip trembled.
“It’s all right, dear,” she said, patting him soothingly.  “It’ll be okay.”

Herman was sent off to school with big smiles on faces and tiny worries scurrying under skins.  He took a lunch, took a seat, got told off, and came back home.
“How was your day?” asked his father.
Herman told him that he’d made lots of friends and felt that he’d learned and experienced something in a manner that had made him alter and change as a person.  Not exactly in those words.
His father gave him a hug and told him he loved him, then went away to drink beer until he could forget the awful things he’d just heard.
Herman’s school year was one big warning sign after another.  He came home with new knowledge, he constructed and dismantled opinions, many times he was proven wrong and several more he was shown to be right.
“We think it would be best for everyone involved if he were to be homeschooled,” said the principal to his parents, listlessly.
“He’s a good boy,” said his mother defensively.  “He can’t help his condition. We’ve told him to stop dozens of times, he’s very ashamed of it and tries his best.”
The principal shrugged with one-half of one shoulder.  “He’s a possible health hazard for the other children.  I know the stuff’s not supposed to be anywhere close to contagious in carriers, but he can definitely weaken their resistance to it if they’re exposed later on.  I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to ask you to withdraw him.”
Herman’s parents did so – with tears, with bluster, with legal threats, but in the end they gave in.  The boy was withdrawn (protesting) from his classes, books were purchased, and effort was made to transfer something from one to the other.
Herman used the spare time he’d acquired to go out and learn to play hockey.  His parents despaired.

At last Herman was sent away to university.  There, his parents hoped, he would learn to throttle back his condition.  Despite an alarming tendency to have wild parties every few weeks and frantically finish projects at the absolute last-minute, he was as good as could be for his stay.  He entered into the medical sciences, and graduated with extremely high marks, two majors, and at least one major disease cured (if in a somewhat costly manner) after a fit of inspiration and the shredding of more than two dozen cocktail napkins.  His parents put on brave faces about it, but he knew they were disappointed with him.  He didn’t want that, and so he crafted a small side-point in his valedictorian’s speech specifically to appease them.
Herman was a passionate speaker, but his audience suffered willingly through it.  He spoke of the past, and the present, and the various futures to which he and his classmates were aiming for.
“It is my dream,” said Herman to a crowded auditorium, “to see no child live with what I have had to.  I am going to cure Life.”
And, to the deep shame of all involved, the crowd erupted in genuinely enthusiastic applause.

Herman made good on his word.  His marks were impressive, and soon his resume was too.  A lab was formed, and staffed, and filled with hundreds of impractically devious projects, mounded upon mounding, funded upon funding.  He slept seldom and worked as hard as he could, and some people began to say that maybe he’d found a cure after all – he was pale and haggard all day, and spoke curtly and incoherently when he could be bothered to open his mouth for anything beyond basic nourishment.  His parents, now retired, felt a faint budding of hope.
Then a major source of Herman’s sleeplessness was discovered to be his embroilment in a somewhat scandalous and quite passionate affair with one of his assistants.
“Life, it seems,” he said ruefully to an interviewer, “is not so easily extinguished.”  The reporter nodded solemnly and scribbled notes on the office’s wallpaper, for later use in working into a ham-handed metaphor.

The years went by.  Herman grew greyer and wrinkled, and occasionally forgetful, yet always brilliant.  He developed strange habits ranging from endearing to vexing to simply inexplicable.  He theorized and recanted and reiterated and he produced great reams and wads of data.
Society wasn’t quite sure what to do with him.  Herman, at least, still had his purpose in his mind.
“I’m close!” he said happily.  “Close to the cure any week now!”  The same thing he’d said for sixteen years, yet still optimistic.  If anything was needed as proof of his syndrome, this was it.  He had to pay his assistants double, then triple.  His associates distanced themselves.  Even the papers began to see him as more harm than help, and tried to muffle any news that came leaking out of his laboratory.  Herman became a name-you-knew, not a name-you-heard.  Not that he seemed to mind.  He was far too busy.

And then it happened.

On one bright midday in midweek around the middle of the year, in his late middle ages, Herman was in the middle of a brief lecture on theory when he clutched his chest, turned grey and rather pleased, and fell over, stiff as a board and full of ten times as much cholesterol as was strictly necessary for anyone.
They waited for him to get up.
They waited a bit longer.
They waited a whole hour before someone – Clarence, his oldest and most unimaginatively loyal research assistant – worked up the nerve to touch him, and found no pulse.
“By god,” he said in awe.  “He’s done it.  He’s finally done it.”

Word spread across the nation.  Herman had cured Life.  The slapdash adventurism, the collection and discarding of identities and concepts like last-week’s fish, the remorseless onset of time shredding away at his facial features, all washed away in a flash with a simple imbalance of his body’s chemical content.  It was so simple that it had to be genius, agreed everyone.  One-of-a-kind, that’s for sure.
“Only imagine,” pontificated one of his old professors, now famous by correlation, “what he could have done if he were not preoccupied by his condition.”


“Life,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Rattles.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Careful where you step there, mind the tall grass.  Hear that buzz?  Feel that hum?  That’s a warning, and that’s from a rattlesnake.
Why do they rattle?  Well, rattlesnakes don’t like being stepped on, and humans don’t like being bitten.  It’s real nice this way, it keeps everybody happy.
How did they get rattles?
That’s a fair question.  Tell you what, I’ll let you know what the humans say about it.

So, once upon a time (the really old time, you know the one – no, no, it was before last March), there was a human walking through the woods.  A hunter human, a brave one, because that wasn’t a very safe place for humans back in the day.  Too much magic, too many animals.  But he was quick and quiet and his bow was fast and sharp to shoot, so he was safe enough.  More importantly, he loved the woods, and he’d have gone back there even if it would’ve meant him getting eaten by a bear or something before you could say massasauga, which he said means “really big river mouth,” so that’s all right then.
Anyways, the hunter was out doing hunter things.  Setting traps, collecting traps, shooting at game and stalking prey, checking for footprints.  Stuff like that.  And then while he was looking at some deer tracks and thinking about how he was going to find those deer, why, something grabbed ahold of his foot.  And before he could even look twice – not even once – he was swept up and he was being hugged the hug of a big old rattlesnake.  It’s not a kindly hug, like your grandma might give you, and it hurts a lot more.  Real tight to breathe in.
“What do you think you’re doing in my forest?” demanded the rattlesnake haughtily, speaking through its hollow fangs like snakes do (snakes without hollow fangs can’t do this, and have to talk by humming).
The hunter thought to tell the rattlesnake that it was anyone’s forest, really, and he didn’t think he was being greedy or anything, but he was a bit short on air and it was hard for him to make his point.
“Speak up, or I’ll crack your ribs and crush your head,” threatened the rattlesnake, loosening itself a bit.  The hunter was a bit out of breath, but he cleared up his head and made his point right there.  The rattlesnake wasn’t impressed by it.
“It may be anyone’s forest,” it said, “but it’s more some people’s forest than others.  You’ve got no business putting yours in mine, and I’m thinking I might eat you.”  It smelled the hunter’s face with its tongue, eye-to-eye.
Well, a lot of people would’ve panicked right then and there.  Just lost it plain and simple, started gibbering and teeth-chattering and done nothing useful.  But the hunter was a brave man, and when brave men get scared (they do get scared, of course), they think through it.  So he thought fierce and fast and he said, “What about my traps?”
“Your what?” said the rattlesnake.
“My traps.  I’ve only just picked up the close little piddly ones for squirrels and such.  What about all my deep-woods traps, the ones that catch tasty rabbits and sweet deer meet and maybe more?  I’m the only person that knows where they all are, and my family needs the food that’s in them.”
The rattlesnake listened to the hunter lament all this, and its big cold mind chuckled in its icy thoughts.  It was hungry, yes, but one human – gamey at that, the hunter was all muscle and sinew – was nothing compared to the tasty rabbits and tender deer floating in its head.  It was autumn too, and the deer were looking pretty plump.
“I will give you your life,” said the rattlesnake grandly, “if you take me to these traps and let me eat.”
The hunter could’ve said that those were definitely his traps and his only, not these traps, but he was far too sensible for that.  So because he was sensible he nodded and promised to take the rattlesnake to each and every one of his traps before the sun set.
“Lead me,” said the rattlesnake.  The sun was just at noon.
The hunter led it to his rabbit traps, and it ate all the birds and bulged.  He led it to his rabbit traps, and it ate all the rabbits and grew plump.  He led it to the big, big deadfalls three that he’d set out in the woods so carefully, and it ate all the deer they’d caught, and everything it ate it ate without chewing, just gulp gulp gulp with no manners at all or even a thank-you.
“More!” demanded the rattlesnake.  It was fat and thick as a barrel around now, and if it ate much more it’d be wider than it was long.
Now, the hunter could’ve just run away by then.  The rattlesnake was too slow to move quickly anymore, and he was very very quick.  But he was a fair man and the unfairness he’d seen today ate at him.  He wanted more than just a way out.  Besides, if he left he knew the rattlesnake would say he’d wronged it, and lied to it, and tricked it, and then it’d try to eat him again anyways and he’d never get anything done.
So he thought fierce and fast again, and he had more time, so he thought more.  And what he thought of was what seemed to be a good plan.
“More!” said the rattlesnake.  “More!”
There wasn’t any more because it had eaten all the game in his traps (and the traps too).  But the hunter had a plan, so he said, “I will give you more, maybe.  There is one last trap, real deep in the woods.  I catch moose in it.”
The rattlesnake just about died on the spot it was so happy at the thought of eating a moose.  It stuck to the hunter’s side like glue, and its big cold mind was running awful hot, too hot to see the little things that it should’ve seen.  Like that big fat smile that the hunter kept having to wrestle away from his lips before it gave him away.  It should’ve seen that.
So they came at last to a big pit in the ground, just before sunset.  It was deep and dark and it led all the way down so far that light couldn’t really reach.  And the hunter pointed at it and said, “aha, that’s my moose trap all right!  And the cover’s been broken, so there’s a moose in it!”
“Is that so?” asked the rattlesnake.  It couldn’t smell moose, and it was starting to get just enough suspicions that they were starting to pipe up over its greed.
“Definitely,” said the hunter.  “Here, listen, and you can hear it!”  And he pulled out his moose call and leaned over the pit and called down it, and sure enough, up called a moose, twice as big as his.
“More!” called the rattlesnake gleefully, and it hurled itself right down the pit, teeth-first, like an arrow.
Now, do you know what an echo is?  That’s good, that’s smart.  See, the rattlesnake didn’t.
So down it went and down it went, and by now it was thinking that this pit was a lot deeper than it thought it looked and where was that moose hiding?  And finally the shaft got so narrow and so deep that the big fat rattlesnake wedged itself right there, in midair, and it was stuck and man and there was still no moose.
Now, the rattlesnake was stuck there for a long time.  Days and days and days.  And it lost that bulk, and it was still stuck, and then it lost a little more, and it was stuck fast, and it shrank and withered and shrivelled right up ‘till it had shed out of its own skin over and over and over again, and finally it slipped free and fell out into a little cave next to a riverbank.  And down there on the riverbank, sitting in the sunshine, cooking a meal and laughing his behind off, was the hunter.
“Feeling a bit thin?” he asked, and then he laughed some more.  The rattlesnake tried to glare him in the eye, and then it saw that it was much too small for that anymore; it was almost too small to glare at his knees.
“You tricked me and lied!” hissed the snake furiously.  “That was no trap of yours!  There wasn’t even a covering on it!”
“I promised I’d take you to every trap around before sunset,” said the hunter.  “And it looks like it was a pretty good trap to me.  Now let’s see you try to push around people trying to get an honest meal,” said the hunter, still grinning a big old grin.
The rattlesnake hissed and tried to bite him and he just pulled out something from his pocket and pinned it down with one hand, no problem.
“I brought this for you,” he said.  “It’s my son’s old rattle.  He’s a big boy now and he doesn’t need it any more, but since you’re so small and weak all of a sudden, maybe you’d better take it.  If I hear you ring it loud and clear, maybe I won’t step on you next time our paths get to crossing.”  And then he dropped the rattle there and walked away, still laughing all the way home.
The rattlesnake fumed, and the rattlesnake cursed, and the rattlesnake wished a thousand very uncomfortable things upon the hunter and his son and his rattle all together until the world cracked in half and blew away like ashes, but in the end he had to swallow his pride and his curses both and take up that rattle.  And ever since that hunter played that trick, all rattlesnakes have to shed their skins (other snakes do it out of sympathy, they say, but I think they’re just poking fun), and all rattlesnakes rattle their little tails off when humans come near.  Because they’re still scared, and still hoping for that promise.

Now, that’s a story right there, isn’t it?  But you don’t usually get stories alone; they’re sort of like wolves.  They like to come in packs.  See, that story, that’s what the humans say.  The rattlesnakes tell it differently.
Sure thing, I can tell you that one too.

So there’s this rattlesnake, back in the old days (which were back around a time, or maybe a little farther – rattlesnakes are older than humans, I’m pretty sure).  She’s just a little one, because rattlesnakes aren’t that big.  Well, at least this one wasn’t.
Now she’s just sitting by an anthill, eating ants, because that’s all she can catch; bugs and stuff like that.  Back in the old days, you see, rattlesnakes didn’t have teeth.  No teeth, no poison, and they’re very little – remember that? – and ants are about all they can handle at that size with no poison because they have no teeth.  They don’t taste so good, either.  Bees taste better, and the fuzz tickles on the way down, but the stings are dangerous and they just fly away up high so she can’t eat too many of them.
Anyways, this rattlesnake’s sitting at the anthill getting hungry (it’s a pretty slow day for ants; they’re all busy underground building tunnels and such), when a big shadow looms over her.  It’s a human, a big fierce human whose foot is bigger than the snake and her husband put together.
“Hello, snake,” said the human.  It was a warrior, and you could tell that because its face was carefully painted with some very important things and it had a big ceremonial rattle for a trophy and it was carrying a really big club that it used to kill people.  It was dangling carelessly from one of its hands, and it made the snake itch just looking at it.
“Hello, warrior,” said the rattlesnake politely.
“I’m bored, snake.  They say snakeflesh is tasty.  Is that true?”
The rattlesnake thought about this.  She didn’t have to think long.  “No.”
“Is that so?” the human leaned down really close and peered at her.  “I think you’re lying, snake,” it said.  “I think you’re telling me what you think’ll save your skin.  Well, I’m hungry and I think I’ll eat you.  Now hold still.”  The warrior slipped its club into both hands and began to take aim.
“Wait!” said the rattlesnake.  “I have a husband, and I have children on the way!  You can’t just kill a mother like that!”
The warrior shrugged.  “You’re a snake.  Snake mothers don’t count.”  You see, killing pregnant women is usually a bad thing for most warriors.  It doesn’t make them look very impressive.
“Then do I count as a warrior?” asked the rattlesnake.  “At least let me fight for my life!”
The warrior stared and stared and stared and then it let out a big booming laugh that shook the trees to their roots, and it didn’t stop for some time.
“You?” it said through the tears.  “YOU?  Hah!  Snake, you wish to duel me?!  I’ll crush your head under my heel and crack your back with a breath and a harsh word!  Your challenge is taken and met, and I’ll see you at sunset tonight.  I’ll have your flesh for dinner!”
The warrior stomped on the rattlesnake’s anthill and walked off laughing, and the rattlesnake slithered back home to her husband, whom she told about their troubles.
“Well, you should hide under a rock until it forgets, or maybe dies,” he said.
“Humans live longer than we do, and their grudges last longer,” she said sadly.  “I’d have to hide all my life, and so would my children, and children’s children.”
The rattlesnake’s husband agreed that this was not a perfect solution.
“Maybe I could fight,” she said.
“That’s crazy,” he said.  It was, a little, but he’d known she was a little crazy for years.  That’s what being married is all about.
“Maybe it is,” she agreed.
“You’ll need some weapons.  It’s going to have that big club.”
The rattlesnake hissed to herself.  “What kills humans?”
“Other humans,” said the rattlesnake’s husband.
“I don’t think they’d be much help – one human’s enough trouble for me.”
“Bears?” suggested the rattlesnake’s husband.
“Bears are greedy and lazy and cowardly,” she said.  “They’d never help me.”  But then she thought about it.  “Help me on purpose,” she corrected herself, and then she thanked her husband and went on her way through the forest with a promise that she had a plan and it was all going to be just fine.
Now, bears those days were different too.  Bears were bigger and fiercer (most things were bigger and fiercer in the old days, even things as big and fierce as bears), and they had poison in their teeth that would make anything they bit drop dead after three heartbeats.  They ate everything and they weren’t scared of anything, and that meant they had no real problems and got lazy and selfish easy.  The rattlesnake had seen a bear down by the lake days and days and days ago, and knew he was probably still there.
He was.  And he was asleep.  So the rattlesnake slithered right up to his big hairy muzzle, heartbeat steady and slow, and pecked him right on the eyelid with her smallest tooth.
He snored.
The rattlesnake pecked the bear on the eyelid with its second-biggest tooth.
The bear belched.  It smelt like fish.
The rattlesnake made a rude face and bit the bear as hard as she could with both her biggest fangs, on the nose.
The bear jumped up with a yelp and glared at her as she dangled.  “That was mean,” he grumbled.  “I should eat you.”
The rattlesnake was getting annoyed at big, nasty people threatening to eat her all day (wouldn’t you?) and had to swallow her next words and think them through twice before she spoke them.
“If you eat me,” she said, through a mouthful of bear nose, “you won’t get to eat all these delicious bees I found.”
The bear blinked at her.  “What’s a bee?”
“It’s the most delicious bug ever.  It’s tastier than a grub and finer than a fly and it’ll make your tongue dance like a spider in season,” promised the snake.  “I know where a whole hive of them is sitting, and they’re all for you because I’m so impressed with your big teeth and fierce claws.”
The bear thought this over.  It seemed like an unlikely motive, but he wasn’t that bright and a pretty girl was telling him how wonderful he was (even if she wasn’t a bear), and so he was just fine with it all.
The snake led him down to the bee hive, dead center of a meadow.  The air hummed and the flowers crawled with bees, but the rattlesnake told him not to bother with the little bunches.  “The hive is the good bit,” she said.  “There’s lots and lots in there.  Just take a really big bite and chew carefully.”
The bear eyed the hive, wedged as it was in the crook of the tree.  This all seemed a bit fishy to him, but that did look sort of tasty, and he was a bear and not scared of anything.  Didn’t he have the most poisonous bite and strongest claws in all the woods?  Of course he did.  So he opened wide and bit hard – crunch – right through the bee’s nest, and he had a thousand-and-three stingers jammed in every gum and a million-and-one in his tongue, all before you could say makwa, which means a bear.
“Oh,” said the bear.  And then, a lot quicker, “ow.”  He chewed and chewed as hard as he could, but the stinging wouldn’t stop, and although something was tasting nice in there, it was hard to tell through all the pain.  And the swelling.  His mouth was inflating like a water bladder and it didn’t feel nice at all.
“You have to chew faster,” the rattlesnake said apologetically.
The bear didn’t hear her – he’d forgotten she was there, what with the pain on his mind.  Actually, there was worse than the pain; he was in real danger of cutting his lips on his own teeth, and he spat them out in a hurry once he knew that was coming.  “Ech,” he said.  “Ich.  Pttffthuu.  Hurrh.”  He shook his head and wandered down to the lake to get a drink.
The rattlesnake watched him go, then took the teeth.  They were a bit big, but when she tucked the biggest of them back under her gums just like that then they sort of fit.  She opened and closed her mouth a few times to get used to the feel of them, tucked the other teeth away for safekeeping, and slithered away in a hurry.  The bear wasn’t going to be happy when he came back, and sunset was coming on fast.
The warrior was waiting outside the rattlesnake’s home, warclub at the ready.  Its facepaint was all red in the sunset, like something had bled all over it already.  Not that it had.  It just looked like that.  The rattlesnake thought it was being a show-off.
“Are you ready to die, snake?” said the warrior.
The rattlesnake looked at it with distaste.  “Did you follow me home?” she asked, angrily; she almost forgot the plan here she was so mad.
The warrior shrugged.  “After I kill you, I’ll need more than one snake to make a proper mouthful.”
Now the rattlesnake was so mad that she was nearly seeing double, but she gulped down that anger and saved it up and stored it in her teeth so hard that they near sparked.  “I am only a little rattlesnake,” she said, as sweetly as she could, “and I demand the right to land the first strike.”
The warrior laughed and laughed and laughed, all around the trees.  “Good one, snake!” it said.  “You will get one bite, and then I will laugh again, and then I will eat you!  My life is good!”  And with that, and another laugh, it mockingly held out its arm for the snake to bite.
So the rattlesnake opened wide, and aimed, and launched herself straight as an arrow and left two perfectly round little holes in the warrior’s arm.  They were so small that they barely bled.
“Hah!” said the warrior.  “Heh.”  “Huh.”
It fell over after three heartbeats and stopped moving very much.
The rattlesnake slithered on over to the dying warrior and up to its ear.  “As punishment for your threats and bad manners and never once calling me by my proper name,” she hissed, “I am taking your rattle-trophy.  And I will tell your family that whenever they come by one of my relations, they will sound it loud and long, and if your family does not heed the warning of my family, they will bite them, and they will die.  So.  There.”
The warrior died, the rattlesnake made her warning, and that was that.  Her family and all the others got new teeth, and a little bit of the rattle each, and they used them exactly as they promised.
(The bear never really got over his missing teeth, by the way.  He was grumpier than ever to things smaller than him, and twice as skittish whenever he met things bigger than he was, and every winter during his long nap he couldn’t dream of anything but the good old days when he had the most dangerous bite in the world and everything was scared of him.  He also really hated being woken up from those dreams, so don’t do that.  It’s a bad idea.)

So.  That’s what the rattlesnakes tell, that story was.  Pretty good, huh?  I mean, it’s okay.  Not bad.  Sure tells you how they got that rattle, and a bit different from the first one, huh?
But there’s a third answer.

So, the idea is that a long, long time ago, some of these snakes didn’t have rattles.  But a couple had little bits of loose skin on their tails, and they were loose because they didn’t get shed properly with the rest of the skin.  A bit messy, huh?
So they get a bit of an ugly bump there, and it makes noise.  Now the snakes that just let it flop around, they get heard and eaten by other stuff.  Kingsnakes and such.  But some snakes are careful, and they’re still quiet even with those big ugly bumps on their tails.  So they get to have babies.
Anyways, some of those snakes ended up figuring out that when they made that noise with their bumps a whole lot, it let big clumsy things know they were close, and then those things wouldn’t step on them.  Because stepping on snakes really hurts a lot.  You know that, I know that, everybody knows that.  And whenever that rattle sound played, nothing stepped on those snakes, so they had babies that did the same things.  Let that happen long enough, and all the best rattlers have had babies and their babies have had babies and all those snakes are real good at rattling and have some real nice rattles.
Rattlesnakes.  There you go.

We asked all the rattlesnakes and humans we could find, and they agreed that it makes pretty good sense.  But they also said that it’s not that great a story.


“Rattles,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Dreamcatcher.

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Lo!  The crisp feel of a brand-new, shiny morning with the foil just off!
See!  The light fresh and brilliant, so sparkling to the eye that blindment is an impossibility!
Breath!  The deep strong lungfulls of air so good it’s positively an intoxicant!
Smell!  The enveloping, nostril-bleeding musk of a bull elk in full season!
Hear!  The full-throated bark of joy from an oversized elephant gun as it tears a hole directly through its head and out the other side in a spray of meaty bits and delicate little bone splinters!
Harrison Harolds watched in satisfaction as the animal fell over, its eyes too bemused to even start glazing.  A good, clean shot on a good, clean animal.  He wasn’t sure which to be more proud of, his aim or his son-in-law’s imagination.  It was a good elk, the sort a sportsman wished for day in and day out, which meant that now Eric should have some extra time on his hands to spend fantasizing about the things he should, such as how to get ahead at his firm and make his wife Ellen, Harrison’s daughter, obscene amounts of money.  Or possibly just daydream about her straightways; Harrison supposed that’d be a good second best.  Sentimentality was a weakness, but one he had grudgingly learned to tolerate in his life, if only for appearance’s sake.
He spent too much time killing other people’s dreams to put much stock in them.

Harrison woke up in his chair downstairs.  Now and then, someone would try and make a fuss about he really shouldn’t do that sort of thing at his age and the possibility of falling out and hurting himself or having back problems or a spontaneous attack of dead or something.  All he ever had to do to silence the worries was offer a two-second spell in the chair; the thing was thicker than a slice of Ellen’s pound cake and nearly as soft, battered as it looked.  The cushions could’ve swallowed pythons whole.
He was pleased to note the steady, clear look in Eric’s eyes over breakfast – no imaginary game hunts there.  Good.  The last thing he needed right now was distraction; not with a six-year-old to deal with, another on the way, and having to stay at his father-in-law’s.  Harrison had tried his best to be welcoming, but he’d rather lost the knack, or possibly never had it – he’d forgotten which.  Ellen had certainly never displayed much remorse over moving out of the nest; the only member of the family that had shown any sort of cheer over the whole thing had been little Jackie.  Ellen said she’d just gotten past explaining they were “staying at grandpa’s” when she started jumping up and down and making steam whistle noises.
“Fastest recovery from a disaster I’ve ever seen,” she commented.  “She almost looked disappointed when I told her it was just ‘till we get the fire damage sorted out.”
Harrison shrugged.  “So long as her room was fine, there’s nothing much for her to miss at that age.  And of course she’s tough – so are you.”
Ellen gave him some sort of look, and the conversation had died off quickly and without dignity soon after that.  He still wasn’t sure what he’d said wrong.  It annoyed him, as it had so often.
If there was one upside to the whole thing, it was the return to dream-hunting.  He’d almost hunted out his neighbours’ entirely; they were worn down to the nubbins, barely a sickly hart shared between them all.  Not that they’d been spectacular sport to begin with.  Too many dried-up lives around here, too many flaccid imaginations.  Too many middle-aged men and women who’d decided their lives were over already.  Where was the glory – or point, for that matter – in shooting down someone’s hopes of one day owning a slightly nicer car?
No, Eric and Ellen were breaths of fresh air.  Both had problems, the fire just being the most visible of them.  Both needed focus.  Both had entirely too many airy-fairy notions floating around in their heads for their own good.  He was doing them a favour, really.  And besides, it reminded him to get some food in his diet that wasn’t cereal.
His thoughts were interrupted by the latching of tiny arms around his neck, putting him in an expert stranglehold which he reversed with a quick grab-and-tickle.  Jackie fell away from him in a burst of giggles, reminding him of the other upside of their presence.  He hadn’t seen his granddaughter since Christmas, and already it seemed like she’d put on a half-foot in height.
“Too slow,” he told her.  “And guard your sides better – and if you can’t do that, for the love of Christ don’t giggle on the approach; you completely gave yourself away.”
“Still got you,” she said, unrepentant and damningly insightful.
“If you’re done eating, go study.  You had homework, didn’t you?”
Out came the Lip, involuntary and omnipresent at the prospect of work.  “Homework’s boring.  And I did almost all of it.  Almost.  Miss Susan understands it when we don’t.”
“Miss Susan’ll be all the happier if you get it all done then.  Surprise her.  You need to learn to get things done, and done properly.  This is important.”
The Lip quivered.  Inside himself, Harrison felt something cave in and knew he’d already lost.  “But it’s all so stupid.  It’s just math, and it’s really really easy.  I don’t need to do it, please?”
“It’s good practice for all the things in life that you’ll need to do anyways,” said Harrison.  And then, because he knew he was going to say it no matter what and wanted to get it over with, he amended, “but I suppose if you already know it there’s no point.”
“Yay!” she yelled, and then tried to strangle Harrison again.
“Shoo!  Go play with Seuss or something.”
“Seuss is boring,” she laughed.  “All he wants to do is sleep.”
“He’s eighteen-and-a-half, not dead.  Just tickle him and see what happens next – careful, or you might lose a finger.”
Lured by the prospect of possible dismemberment, Jackie departed at top speed to track down the cat.
Harrison wondered if he’d ever been able to move like that, or if he’d just imagined it.  He snorted.  Of course he hadn’t imagined it.  He’d made a habit of pruning his own fancies quite regularly.

Jackie went to school.  Eric went to work.  Ellen went to work.  Harrison went to the TV and turned it onto the weather network, then settled himself in his chair and closed his eyes.  True, midday naps were getting easier and easier as he got older, but it never hurt to have a little aid.  The soothing sound of cold fronts and warm updrafts and sunnies that may have contained a chance of cloudy washed over him, soft as a whisper on a windy day.
He blinked, and was outside.  It was always such a relief nowadays; you never really realized how much joint pain hurt until it vanished.
From these eyes, in this place, the world was different.  A lot of kind-of-dark, mostly.  Shadows lurking that could’ve been trees.  An emptyscape where there were buildings and roads.  Gaps that were both endlessly wide and traversable with a quick jump.  Distance didn’t really mean anything until you reached the lights where minds were; shedding reality like torches on everything they passed.
Harrison approached a dimly flickering one, fading at the edges, and examined it with a critical eye.  For all they claimed to treasure them, some people were awfully careless with their brains.  Look at this one right here, belonging to…. He probed for a moment… Jeremy Holloway, aged fourteen years and four months.  Sick at home from school, but not so sick as to not do homework, and yet he was messing about on a computer, playing some sort of game that involved removing limbs from things before they did the same to you.
Well.  Harrison would just have to see about that.

Jeremy’s mind was drifting in neutral as he played, and it made an easy target for boarding – all the footholds and grips and latches you had to jimmy were easy to spot in its dimmed illumination.  Trying to board an active brain was like trying to bowl with a thousand-watt lightbulb strapped to each retina, with your consciousness the ball.  Missing wasn’t fatal, but it was embarrassing and not a little painful.  Harrison hadn’t missed since he was thirteen.  Those had been the dangerous days, back before he’d learned exactly what sort of mind it was and wasn’t safe to venture into.  He still winced when he thought about Marjorie.
The inside of Jeremy’s brain was much larger than the outside, curled over and wrinkled as it was.  Right now it was pretending to be a maze-upon-maze-upon-maze of coiling mechanized tunnels, flickering with the strobe-like flashdance of terrible lighting and riddled with mysterious fans, ducts, and creaking noises reminiscent of automobiles giving birth.   Something unspeakable scuttled along an unseen passage with an unnecessarily ostentatious amount of noise.
Harrison squinted, stuck his right pinky in his mouth and chewed on it, and pulled an extremely large and complicated gun out of his jeans pocket.  It looked like the illegitimate offspring of a crossbow and a glue gun, and the combination of its heft and slight hum was a comfort.  Flashy, over-built, and stupid as all-get-out, but with loads of firepower.  Yes, this was a typical teenager’s dream.  They were like modern movies: all full-frontal special effects, no surprises.  He’d seen it all before a thousand times.  It was because of this that he was very nearly completely unfazed when four hundred pounds of slimy exposed muscle tissue leapt from under the floor and into his face, which it screamed at full-force for nearly five seconds straight.
Harrison used the time to take aim, then held down the trigger until the noises stopped.  He wouldn’t be getting many trophies from this one, at least none that wouldn’t fit on a dime.  Ah well, the satisfaction of a job well done was its own reward.  He could already feel the darkened metal fading from underfoot and the groan of ancient computers fading away as Jeremy stirred himself, inexplicably bored of his loafing.  Harrison dove for the airlock, punched in four or five different combinations, and got the hell out an instance ahead of the full blossoming of wakefulness.  Even from behind, “eyes” shut, he was nearly blinded by the glare.  Good mind on the boy, and one that wouldn’t be wasting its time for the rest of the day, at least.

Harrison woke refreshed, had a drink, and did some of the dishes.  There seemed to be such an awful lot of them these days, even for four people, one of them growing.  Maybe he’d starting eating less and hadn’t noticed; a good dream-hunt did seem to tide him over more than mentally.  It was one of those things he’d never really taken the time to think about; after all, what good would it do?  It was what it was, and there was no changing it, just rolling with it.

Dinner was quiet that night.  Eric chewed thoroughly, ate quickly, and excused himself having completed his third of the dishes, heading almost straight for bed.  Most efficient.  Ellen had that funny look on her face again, and Harrison wasn’t sure why.
Jackie, however, consumed most of his attention.  She looked profoundly ill-at-ease, an emotion that should never sit on any six-year-old for more than ten minutes.  It was unnatural to the eye.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Go to bed early then,” he said.  “You’ll be fine tomorrow.  It’s nothing.”
She smiled – very poorly – and left the table.  Ellen directed her look at Harrison.
“What now?”
“You can try digging a little deeper next time before you write her off.”
“She’s a tough girl; if she doesn’t want to talk about it, I won’t make her talk about it.  Trouble at school can seem like a nasty thing, but it only gets worse if you pay mind to it.  Just ignore it and it goes away.”
Ellen sighed.  “You’ve made your point, dad.”  She rose from the table.  “I’ll check on her and turn in.”
She left, and it was only after she’d vanished upstairs that Harrison realized that she’d avoided her share of the dishes.

On the far side of midnight, lodged in the depths of the mind of his neighbour-across-the-way Jim Thompson (currently manifested as a beautifully sprawling reefscape), Harrison found himself distracted by that conversation.  He didn’t like the implications.  Of course he cared about Jackie, he wasn’t sure how Ellen could question that.  He cared about her enough to respect her, that was all, and that meant not getting up in her face about every last little worry.  You had to let people stand on their own; make their own mistakes.
It suddenly entered his thoughts that he hadn’t seen the fancy he’d been trailing for a while, and it was only the luck of coincidence that led to him finding it no less than two seconds later, as it rammed into his back.  It was a gorgeous thing, half-whale, half-yacht, mast towering above its blubbery folds and a compass’s point dancing inside each of its beautiful big eyes.  Harrison was left spinning in its wake, harpoon gun whirling away to some godforsaken corner of the reef and brain (roaming free and confused) trying to figure out which side was up, whose body it was attached to, and what it had eaten for lunch yesterday.
He shook his head and scowled.  Wonderful.  A whole night’s careful tracking ruined by one moment of lost concentration.  A more perfect illustration of what he stood against he couldn’t imagine, and he had to laud the irony involved, if not its chosen target.  Well, it looked like an early morning for him then.  After this little incident, he doubted he could face the shame of a full sleep.
Harrison stepped into the wee hours of the early morning just in time to hear the ambulance pull up.

“Appendicitis,” said the doctor morosely.  She was a moderately large woman, the sort whose life bespoke a long, tired history of expected jolliness and who had become quite fed up and jettisoned it along with her sympathy long ago.  “Quite a nasty case, too – caught it a bit late.  There’s probably some complications.”  She shrugged.  “We’ll fix it.”
Ellen and Eric were quite un-reassured by this.  Standing there in his pyjamas and overcoat, neither was Harrison.  He could still hear the sobs Jackie had been making every time he stopped thinking for a moment; it was amazing that he’d managed to sleep through them.
Maybe if you hadn’t been out dream-hunting, whispered a treacherous little voice inside his head.  He tried to squelch it, failed, and resorted to paying attention to whatever the doctor was saying only to realize that she had left.
He cleared his throat, hollowly.  “Well, at least it’s just the appendix,” he said.
Ellen gave him that look again.  This time it was long and slow, and he shrank under it.  “She didn’t say anything about it to me,” said Ellen.  “Not one word.  It must’ve just been starting this evening.  But she didn’t want to make a fuss over nothing, because she was ‘tough.’”
Harrison flinched.
Ellen held him in her gaze for a moment longer, then looked away with apparent indifference.  “She’s in surgery now, and there’s nothing we can do.  Go get some sleep.  You must be exhausted, to have slept through all that noise until the sirens came.”
Harrison was halfway to one of the couches in the waiting room before the past few hours and their implications caught up to him.  When they did, he wanted to curl into a ball and hide.  Not that it’d shield him from the incriminating thoughts draped over him like tree pythons.
It was in this worried, exhausted state that his sleep caught up with him.  He woke up from it with a start, eyes-shut in that strange nowhere that he spent almost more time in than the real, body-world nowadays.  The hospital was a strange place through sleeping eyes; minds flickering everywhere, some diamond-intense in the surgery, some blurred into a smear through medication or pain or anaesthetic, some, a sad few, blinking out altogether with faint sucking sounds that put Harrison in mind of drains and spiders and other creeping, nasty things.
He wandered over to the surgery, lying to himself about why he was doing so, and looked closely at the very wobbly and uncertain glow that was his granddaughter’s state of mind.
He remembered what had happened when he’d popped into his sister Marjorie’s brain.
He remembered exactly how hazardous the mind of a six-year-old could be.
He decided what the hell, and dove in headfirst.

The first thing that struck him, as the mindscape became clear around him, was an entire flight of flying fish, one after another.  They chittered angrily at him, each brandishing a small bag of potato chips, and spiralled off into a bright pink sunset.
Harrison blinked.  He was standing on a pier above an ocean.  Beneath him swam hundreds and hundreds of lovingly detailed sharks (the teeth, he noted, were especially prominent) and a whale the size of a city block.  The Titanic cruised across the horizon, smashing through an endless stream of icebergs with its prow.
He checked his pockets, and found an extremely large Nerf gun that he vaguely recalled getting Jackie for Christmas.  He pointed it at a tree (the seaside had slipped into a park when he wasn’t looking), and pulled the trigger in the spirit of science.  The tree vanished, along with the five behind it and most of the ground beneath them.
“Six-year-olds,” he muttered, gazing at the thing with respect and terror.  The faint smoke that billowed from its barrel smelled of burnt toast.
Harrison moved through the park with caution, eyes on all sides.  Anything could be hiding in here; buried in the sandbox’s trackless wastes; submerged in the commemorative fountain; glowering at him from inside the insurmountable walls of the vast plastic-and-metal fortress that was the playground.  A dog that could’ve swallowed a Volvo whole leered at him, sulphurous acid dripping from its jaws as it strained at a waist-thick chain that tied it to an oak that was older than North America.  Harrison waved the gun at it in a menacing way and it subsided, glowering.
This wasn’t the place, he was sure.  He needed to find the hospital.  Jackie would’ve been awake during the ambulance ride at least, and however confused and hurt she’d been at the time, she would’ve been thinking of hospitals.  And then she would’ve been frightened, probably right up ‘till the anaesthetic kicked in.  Which would mean her fear would be lurking around here somewhere, like a viper in a sparrow’s nest.
He felt his fingers jump a little on the trigger of his trusty Nerf pistol at the thought of it.  With any luck, one shot would do.  Of course, he had to have time to aim.
The park fell behind him as he travelled down a concrete sidewalk.  Giant cracks rippled through each slab of pavement, charging towards his feet in a furious effort at making him snap his dear, long-departed mother’s back like a twig.  He skipped, hopped and twirled through with agility that had departed him years ago, so absorbed that he almost slammed headfirst into the building that had appeared at the path’s end.  The hospital?  No, no; it wasn’t white enough, it was all bricks and iron bars.  A prison?
A bell rang.
Ah, school.  Of course.
Harrison slipped through the doors, feeling vaguely illicit as he drifted through crowds of man-sized children.  Some were mean, some were nice, some were blank faces.  A teacher loomed like an ogre at the far end of a cavernous classroom, bellowing in a language that sounded to be almost entirely obscenities.
Harrison squinted at the words on the chalkboard.  Some of them were equations: e equals mc squared, three and five were eight, three times four was twelve.  Scrawled over top of them, with such force that it was embedded finger-deep, was the message: This Is IMPORTANT.
“Oh, Jackie,” he mumbled.

A yank at his collar reminded him that he wasn’t alone, and he found himself disarmed at the hands of the ogre, fingers smarting and head reeling as hot, vile breath was hollered into his face at full volume.  Then he was dragged away and thrown outside the building, which immediately burned down.  The ashes gave him an accusing look.
Harrison’s stomach started to hurt.
An ambulance whirled up alongside him, red cross high on its mizzen-mast, and he was shanghaied and strapped to a plank as the crew yodelled old shanties, drinking silt-dark bottles of rum.  Lesser vehicles fled in terror at their piercing, screeching war-cry, and they were given right of way all the way, all the time it took for them to come to the hospital.
Harrison had been using the time of the trip to pick away at his bonds, and as the doors opened he elbowed the two nearest orderlies and ran for it, diving through swinging doors and dodging gurneys.  He vaulted through a mausoleum-office where an ancient vampire-surgeon blinked in confusion, and stole a knife along the way (more bowie than scalpel).
This Way To Surgery, Please, signs on the wall informed him, and This Is Important, in stern tones.
“Oh, Jackie,” he said again.  He kicked open the doors to the surgery, even as a nearby sign hissed at him for quiet.
Inside, it was empty.  The operating table was quite bare apart from an oversized needle and thread, and there wasn’t a single bemasked doctor in sight.  The ceiling wasn’t there, only a single vast lightglow that made his head swim.  He swore, softly.  It was too close to the glare of a waking mind for his comfort.
“Cut that out,” said a voice.
Harrison looked around.  It had no apparent source.
“Stop it,” it said impatiently.  “You can’t be messing around now.  This is important.”
“What?” he said stupidly.  He felt vaguely ashamed of the knife in his hand now.  What was he thinking?
“You know what.  This is only happening because you didn’t pay enough attention in the first place.  Why can’t you take this seriously?  It’s only going to get harder from here on.”
Harrison squinted up at the light, trying to fight off an overwhelming wave of guilt.  Was it coming from up there?  His lungs felt tired and loose.  “What are you talking about?”
“Never mind your questions,” said the voice, reasonable and a little exasperated, “you’ve things to do.  Responsibilities.  Pay attention to what you’re doing.  You can’t just sit around with your head in the clouds all day, or you’ll have no one to blame but yourself when these things happen.  As they just did.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” he shouted, and felt his lungs gasp.
“Of course it was.  Why can’t you keep your mind on what’s important?  You need to do these things so you’ll be ready for all the rest of life that’s coming for you.  All the sharp bits and big aches.”
Harrison tried to reply, and found that he was out of breath.  He looked down, and this time he caught his own chest expanding as the voice spoke again from somewhere inside his chest.  “You’re tough.  Don’t you dare to worry over this.  It will only get worse if you pay attention.”
Harrison stood there for a long thought as the thing spoke on using his voice, using his body.  He looked at himself, and he thought; he looked at the operating table, and he thought; and he looked at the knife in his hand and he acted with the inevitable, ponderous speed of a glacier, swinging himself onto the table and flipping the blade into a reverse grip.
“Stop this nonsense,” said the voice.  Impatient as it sounded, Harrison heard something tremulous in its tones.  “Quit acting out.  It won’t help anyone.  This is nothing.”
Harrison grinned in a tremendously terrifying way and started slicing.

The cuts were surprisingly painless – obviously, this was how anaesthetic worked.  The only difficulty was in concentrating while the thing that was pretending to be him squealed inside him, yammering on and on and on while he searched for it organ by organ.  The liver was bare – a lovely cartoony purple it was, too, very pretty – and the lungs were clean as a whistle, but at last he found it clutching against his heart, pale and withered.  It winced under the bright lights of the surgery.
“Cut it aauugh,” it managed as Harrison’s fist tightened around its neck, lifting it out of its nest and into the open.  It flailed impotently at his wrist with tiny, useless fists and tried to bite him with empty gums as he stitched himself back up.
Harrison looked up at the big, empty, bright sky and moved to the exit.  One finger hovered over the light switch.
“The operation,” he said, “has been a success.”
Flick.  Out goes the light.
Step. Out into the dark.
Release.  Out amidst the nothing.
The thing that had spoken for him went drifting away into the darkness between minds.  In what might have been a passing moment of imagined mercy on Harrison’s part, he thought he saw it shrivel up and vanish.  Or maybe it had simply fallen so far that he couldn’t see it anymore.

Harrison woke up with a blink.  For a moment he was filled with rising panic – he was sure there was something he was meant to be doing, something massively important – but the doctor was trying to tell him something and it slipped away without a fuss.  Ellen and Eric were already somewhere, something important had happened or something.  It was all a bit much to grasp, right after waking up, but after he was led down to the recovery room, he understood it just fine.
Jackie looked a little pale, but better.  He sat down beside the bed, next to his daughter and her husband.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.  A little weak, but happier.
He patted her hand.  “You’d better have a bit of sleep then.  You’ll be fine tomorrow.  You’ll have time off from school and we’ll get you something sugary and bad for you.”
She smiled – very softly – and was out like a light.
“A nice quiet sleep for her,” said Eric, tucking her in with infinite care.  “Too tired to dream, I’d expect.”
Harrison shrugged.  “No way to know.”

“Dreamcatcher,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: A Gentleman’s Bet.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Charles Thurwood hated Wednesdays.  He was not a complex man, or one prone to thinking things through carefully, but he had carefully, loathingly found himself a modest spread of widely differing reasons to hate them so.
First, they were the middle of the week.  Waking up on a Wednesday was a reminder that, however tired you were, you were only halfway there.  And you were already tired.
Second, their name made no sense.  He’d heard once that a bunch of the days of the week were named after old Viking gods or something. Thursday as Thor’s day?  Only one letter difference.  Tuesday as Tyr’s Day?  Bigger change, but still sounded right.  Wednesday as Wotan’s day?  No goddamned way.  It was just too different-sounding, and it annoyed him to see an otherwise tidy pattern spoiled.
Third, too many bad things happened to him on them.  His dog had choked on a small tortoise on a Wednesday.  His dad and him had gotten into a fistfight on a Wednesday.  His 40th birthday had been on a Wednesday.  His wife had run off with his cousin on a Wednesday – wait, no, nevermind on that one.  Still, too many bad things.
Fourth, it was when he had to go out and check to see if any of his coyote traps had been tripped.  If you didn’t keep up on the buggers, they’d slink back in easy as you please.  It was a lot of walking, and Charles didn’t appreciate it.
Fifth, it was the name some long-ago, misbegotten moron had given to her son and Charles’s next-door neighbour.  Well, less next-door and more across-the-road.
Charles was glaring at Wednesday – on a Wednesday, of all the miserable times – as he tinkered with the gas station’s pumps.  He was an easy man to glare at; there was so much of him, you could scarcely miss.  Sometimes Charles had caught himself glaring off at Wednesday when he wasn’t even thinking about him, and then he had thought about him, and it had completely spoiled his whole day.
Wednesday grinned back from his chair in front of his store, syrupy and insolent.  Traces of his pancake breakfast glittered like golden nuggets from his beard.
“Fatass,” muttered Charles, viciously jabbing his screwdriver into the dangling guts of a pump.  It flinched.
“Spidery little jumped-up pussy,” opined Wednesday with a belch.  He extracted a sandwich from his pocket – unwrapped – and took an absent bite out of it, belching through his teeth as he chewed.  It was always the same sandwich.
“Useless, boneless, dickless slug,” hissed Charles.  He smacked the screwdriver home into a pressure point and the pump jumped sharply, then sagged in relief.
“Judgin’, whinin’, festerin’ prick,” grunted Wednesday with his mouth open, still champing at his snack.  Fragments of unidentifiable meat slithered over his tongue, leaving strange marks on it.
“FUCK OFF!” shrieked Charles, throwing his screwdriver in a vicious overhand swing.
“SHUT UP!” hollered Wednesday, surging to his feet and spitting fragments of bread this-way and that-way.
The screwdriver met the bits of bread precisely halfway between the general store and the gas station, over the centerline of the dejected-sheet-of-asphalt-passing-as-road that in its twilight years was musing dejectedly about how it could’ve been a highway.  There was a very large flash of a colour not often seen outside of the sun, a sound like a cow revving backwards, and a taste of lemons, and both implements fell uselessly apart, rebounding to the edges of their owners lots.
Charles, once more glaring in venomous silence, snapped his fingers and put the screwdriver back in his pocket.  Wednesday glowered at him over his sandwich and, with a final bite, stuffed the thing away again.
Honestly, it was practically a ritual by now.  And if there was one thing that both Charles Thurwood and Wednesday Knuckledowns could agree on, it was the importance of ritual.
On the other hand, as illustrated by the existence of outhouses, wars, and most governments, just because something was important didn’t mean you had to like it.

And it was precisely this that made the stranger’s offer so appealing.

He came down the road on a big old truck, half-vehicle and half-menhir, scarred where it wasn’t chiselled and chipped where it wasn’t scarred. It was painted post-apocalyptic rust with a hint of bruised steel, and the most amazing thing about it was that it actually ran fairly quietly, smoothly, and with as fresh a fuel efficiency as any that could be found in something its size.
He wanted gas.  Charles agreed that this was something he could provide.
“Back in a second,” said the stranger, relishing in the luxurious thirty seconds of free time allotted him by one of America’s last few non-self-serve gas stations.  He was a lanky, thoroughly-sun-seared man with a sandy, disarming sort of beard, a bristly smile, and a barking, easy-coming laugh, draped in something that could’ve been an old blanket or a jacket once upon a time.  “Sweet tooth kicked in.”
He made to go towards the general store, and hesitated at Charles’s expression.  A two-ton canary placed besides a cat couldn’t have looked more vicious.
“No,” said Charles.
The stranger waited.
“No.  Not a problem.  A plague.  A bloated, blubbery plague of one inflicted on me and me alone years and years ago.  Don’t go into that building if you value your sinuses, senses, and soul.”  His face twisted farther, turning into an almost Escherian frieze of disgust.  “No, no, not a plague: a parasite.  A goddamned great leech that pretends to be a man.  Bastard sits up there and sucks away profits pretty as you please, taking money from me as sure as if he were helping himself to my wallet – which I think he’s done too.  Wouldn’t put nothing past him.  This is my land.  I was here first, and he wasn’t, the filthy squatter.  Who took up all that work of getting rid of the coyotes so’s you could leave garbage outside without it being ransacked?  Me.  Who put up signs so people knew there was a business here, not an empty road?  Me.  Who helped make that road?  Me!  Watch yourself around that bloodsucker.”
“I’ll consider myself warned,” said the stranger.
“Watch yourself in there!” yelled Charles at his retreating, vaguely-tartan back.

“A real pisser, that one is,” huffed Wednesday as he pawed through the change being exchanged for something made of 15% real milk chocolate and 85% certified optimism.
“Oh?” said the stranger politely, absently scratching a flea loose from his neck.
“Always bawlin’ and pukin’.  Tellin’ lies about me.  Talkin’ about how he was here first.  Huh, it’s a free country.  I can go where I please, and I was born in this state!  I was raised in this state!  I did more to get rid of the ky-otes than he did – the twit was trying to trap ‘em, everyone knows you’ve got to get out there with a gun and a dog and get your hands dirty – and I bring in half the business of our gas station.  People knows me, people trusts me.  He’s more of a stranger than I am, the moron!”  Wednesday recalled who he was talking to, and checked himself.  “No offence.”
“None taken.”  The stranger peeled free his dubiously brown snack and began to tear at it, swallowing without chewing.  Behind his yellow eyes, little wheels were spinning like mad.  “What’s the problem with you two?”
“He just can’t stand me, and I can say the same of ‘im.  He’s always giving me that stare, like he thinks I’m some sort of drain on ‘im just by existin’.  Hah, he’d get no business in that run-down scrapheap if it weren’t for my customers!”
“Hmm.”  The stranger scratched his (somewhat prominent) nose and thought a bit more.  “Well, sorry to stir up old wounds.  I’ll get myself back to the truck then.”

Charles looked up with an iron-clad scowl as the stranger trudged his way back.  “You again.  Huh.  That’ll be eighty-two forty-six.”
“Thank you,” said the stranger.  He pulled out his wallet, then hesitated as he prepared to hand over the money.  “Oh… before I forget.  The man in there had a message for you.”
“Eh?”  Charles’s gaze tore itself violently from the prospect of cash to fix itself with gimlet intensity on the stranger’s face, looking for traps.  “What?  What’d he say?  It was a lie and a trick, whatever it was.”
“He challenges you,” said the stranger, “to a contest.  Three days and three nights to attract more customers than he does, starting with this night.  And the loser turns over his deeds to the other and gets out of here.”
Charles stood and stared for a long, long moment.  “He’s crazy,” he said in a softly victorious tone.  “Crazy.  The stupid old evil old bastard has finally lost it.”  His feet twitched, then shook, then kicked up their heels in a mad little capering prance of joy.  “Crazy!  Hahaha, he’s lost it if he thinks he can outmatch me!  He’s sunk!  Potted!  Finished and boiled to the bone!”  He stretched bony arms to the sky and made to throttle the sun.  “You’re sunk!  Sunk, you hear me!  HAHAHAHAAHA, aahahahahahaha, HAHAH, aha!”  A coughing fit overtook him, and he grinned his way through it.  “Well you get back there stranger and you tell him I accept his challenge, twice and twice more.  And tell him to get the deeds out of whatever hole he’s been hiding them in, because he’s damned well going to need them soon!”

“A challenge, eh?” said Wednesday.  “What kind?”
“Three days and three nights,” said the stranger.  “Starting tonight.  At the third day’s end, whoever had more customers wins and gets the loser’s property.”
Wednesday’s laugh was a great rolling squishy one, like a barrel of muck being pushed down a broken flight of stairs.  “Oh, so they will, eh?  So they will!  Hah!  Hah!  Hah!”  His flesh wobbled so violently with mirth that the stranger thought for a minute that it would suffocate him.  “Numbskull!  I don’t know what’s crawled into Thurwood’s skull and died, but if he wants to mistake it for his brain, hah, more power to ‘im!  Tell the little weasel I’ll be eating my sandwiches off his pumps come the weekend!”  His mirth only grew and grew, setting the whole floor of the store ashudder.  “A challenge?  For deeds?  HAH.  HAH.  HAH!”

The stranger relayed acceptance to both parties, got in his truck, tossed his wrapper out the window, and drove off with a fare-thee-well that went more unheard than silence itself.  His two new acquaintances were already getting themselves ready – the sunset wasn’t far away.
Charles Thurwood was digging under his creaky, one-man-pallet that lurked in the back room of his gas station like a kicked dog, shoving dust bunnies out of the way with callous force and sifting through cardboard boxes.  His screwdriver was in one hand.
“Aha!” he said, and yanked out a significant one.  It was filled to the brim with odds and ends.  Some metal looped over and over in curious shapes.  A crow’s skeleton made entirely out of copper that had actually once been inside a fully working crow.  An abacus that he used to add up his bills and his taxes and his profits with only one bead left on it.
He selected some six of the smallest and fiddliest of the metal bits, dug out an old ear of corn that he’d been idly planning to make into some sort of semi-nourishing pap sooner or later, hypnotized and sacrificed a rat that had been annoying him for a while with his screwdriver, and was soon discussing slightly unusual terms with a local fertility spirit.
Wednesday Knuckledowns was opening a freezer in his basement – a shadowy, spidery place that smelled of damp and moist – and scanning through its musty, dark contents with a jaded and most professional eye.
“That’ll do,” he said, and yanked out a jar of mustard.  It glistened like liquid bone marrow as he stuck a big, silver knife into it and transferred a dollop to his sandwich, and then two more.
He took a bite, and grinned smoulderingly.  His breath eddied from him in a noxious wave, spreading its dripping, smoky layers all over and around every inch of the house.  It seeped into the wood and cracks in the mortar and it permeated solid metal.  It replaced the water in the pipes and the wires in the circuits.  The air jolted with static electricity, then stabilized itself nervously.
“That’ll do,” repeated Wednesday.  He took another bite, feeling his tongue tingle and blink against his jaw.  “That’ll do.”

Come Thursday morning the competition began in earnest.  The two contestants took their places in their chairs across the road, and gave each other rather nasty grins.
“Blubbery failure,” smiled Charles through every one of his teeth.
“Scrawny toad,” beamed Wednesday.
Soon came the cars.  Lots and lots of cars, rather more than usual.  Both men had redoubled, then retripled their standard and somewhat esoteric methods of customer attraction – sure, some of your customers would probably end up at the other guy’s place, but the more people the lower the odds that you’ll get unlucky and have three cars stop by in a day, all of them ignoring you.
The first car was a station wagon of all things, containing two tormented prisoners and their very small and loud wardens.  The adults’ eyes were harrowed and reddened, like lone survivors of a shipwreck.  Their gazes alit, somewhat numbly, upon the gas station, and as they passed near their backs straightened, their teeth whitened, their hair glossed, and their toenails self-manicured.
“Fill it up?” inquired the male prisoner.  He didn’t know where the impulse was coming from, but he was feeling too good to care about it.
“Yeah,” said the female.  She wasn’t listening that hard, preferring instead to relish the feel of vertebrae unwarped by constant tension.
They took on a full tank of gas and filled up an extra can or two, because it seemed like a good idea at the time.  As the car left the place, Charles gave Wednesday his smuggest smirk.  It would’ve driven a martyr to violence.
Wednesday simply took a bite out of his sandwich and chewed as insolently as possible.
The second car was there before they could blink, pulled down back roads and away from highways by forces beyond the rather puny ken of its young and rather stylish occupants.  They screeched to a dead halt in front of the general store, walked in, and made the mistake of breathing.  Pupils shrank to pinpoints, gazes fixed into the middle distance, and heads began to wobble.  They bought an entire rack of chocolate bars, which probably would’ve seemed like a good idea if they were capable of knowing what good, an idea, or money was at the time.
They drove off.  In half an hour they’d probably be annoyed, but by then they’d be completely unable to remember what about.  And, for some reason, violently allergic to cheese for about four days.
Wednesday waddled out to his chair again and took another bite out of his sandwich.  Charles wished him great pain and suffering.
At day’s end, more than fifty customers had meandered their way out of their way to reach the two little buildings.  Twenty had visited one, twenty the other, and five had checked in at both.
The two men exchanged hateful glances, then went inside.
“Do this for me,” whispered Charles into the ear of his copper crow’s-skeleton.  It twitched and danced in place.
“Do for ‘im,” muttered Wednesday to a jar of pickled eggs as he extracted it from his freezer.  They quivered in their confinement, then spilled out into midair, shedding drops of lethal vinegar as they sped out into the night.

On Friday, the competitors tidied up a few loose ends before resuming their seats. Charles stopped to have a whispered word with his pumps, and Wednesday hummed a jaunty little tune as he walked three times around his building counter-clockwise.  Places resumed, they watched the first car come.
It was a truck, and being so, it contained a trucker.  He was hungry, thirsty, horny, sleepy, mopey, and low on gas, and he could only do anything about three of those problems.
“Fill ‘er up,” he mumbled at Charles, who jammed the nozzle of one of his more-prepared pumps into the vehicle.  It dutifully began to overcharge, and things were going just swimmingly up until the moment when the trucker blinked twice and threw up on Charles’s shoes.
“Bathroom…” muttered the trucker.  “Bathroom….”
Charles opened his mouth to say something that probably wasn’t very nice, only to be cut off quite neatly by Wednesday loudly extended an invitation to his outhouse.  Fleet as he was made by nausea, the trucker didn’t quite make it, and left two more puddles on Charles’s asphalt before reaching the sanctuary of Wednesday’s outhouse, where he felt much, much better.  In fact, he felt a little hungry – VERY hungry – and went inside, where he bought fourteen bags of chips without thinking.  Wednesday beamed benevolently as he tore open the sour-cream-and-onion, then blinked in confusion as the trucker demanded his money back for a bag stuffed with nothing but dried and withered-smelling feathers.
The trucker walked back to the gas station, felt another wave of indigestion approaching, and left so fast that he quite forgot to pay.
Wednesday and Charles exchanged another mutual glare, fingers tightening on screwdrivers, gums peeling back to reveal teeth like rotten stumps.
“Pestilence,” said Charles, murder on his mind and regretfully so far from his options.
“Stinkin’ rat,” said Wednesday, his fists curling into shapes resembling skinned hedgehogs.
At day’s end, they had each had precisely one customer.  Every stop at the gas station ended before it began due to violent disruption of some part of someone’s digestive system, and nothing at the general store could leave the shelves without being turned into either ashes, old feathers, or dust.  The one person able to withstand both had weighed approximately five hundred pounds, and may have simply been too large for any of the various hexes and charms to permeate past his fat layer.
“Jinxing, minxing backstabbing cheater!” snarled Charles that evening as he pried out the last of the eggs from underneath his floorboards. They’d set up a nest and laid eggs of their own, which he set aflame with his spittle.  He pulled out his abacus and began to do things with it that involved numbers that were also ghosts.
“Treacherous little girl,” murmured Wednesday darkly, finding the crow-thing roosting in his attic.  It hissed at him and flapped, and he stuck out his tongue at it, sending its head spinning from its shoulders.  He crushed its remnants to powder in his hands, then snorted them up his nose.  Visions of a cardboard box under a bed slipped into his mind, a mattress above that sagged with skeletal weight every night.  He chuckled nastily, then doodled something disgusting on its underside in pickle juice.

Neither man slept well that night – Charles couldn’t get comfortable, and Wednesday was haunted by ominous, vague dreams.  Still, their hatred kept them sharp on Saturday morning, the last of the days, sharp enough to go and see about their final preparations.  Charles spoke at length to his screwdriver; Wednesday dug out an ancient, cloying bottle of sickly homebrewed wine and spilled it on his doorstep.
Down the road the cars came.  A big old pickup truck to Charles’s, a van stuffed with loud, young people with empty heads and swollen appetites to Wednesday’s.
The old man that spoke to Charles was tough, level-headed, and shrewd.  And despite all that, he was completely unable to see Charles’s screwdriver rise up from the dust below his car and shove itself to the hilt in his truck’s gas tank.  Nor did the steadily-rocketing price showing itself atop the gas pump arouse his suspicions.
The moment that the six semi-attractive, twenty-something, highly-obnoxious people stepped into Wednesday’s lair, they were snared.  The time had come, the larger and more primitive sections of their brains said, to party.
So they did.  They snatched up whole shelves of goods, they danced in the aisles, they played the rumba with their chests and pots and pans, they turned hardware tools into instruments of song and they drank whatever drink was to hand.  Wednesday demanded recompensation in a friendly sort of way, and got it without so much as a moment’s fuss because hey, it was a party, it was THE party, and it was as free of care as a thing could be.  By the time they left, not a single dollar was left in a wallet.
Back at the pumps, Charles’s tank had run dry.  The old man was still oblivious in a friendly sort of way to exactly how much money he was about to be charged.
“Visa okay?” he said nonchalantly.
Charles opened his mouth and thanked him, then told him exactly what he thought about his mother.
The old man stared.  “What was that?”
Charles apologized by speculating on his daughter’s profession.
The old man punched him flat, then got in his truck and drove off.
Meanwhile, Wednesday opened his register to count up his profits, and discovered that every bill in it was now for zero dollars.  Issued in the year nineteen-nothing, by the United States of Nowhere.  He said a word that made his wallpaper fuse itself sideways.

And so the day went.  Charles sold tank after tank of gas, and managed each time to say something that ended in a fresh bruise for himself and a retreating customer.  He tried to do nothing but smile and nod, and found himself making lewd gestures.
Wednesday hosted at least twenty parties, and received some hundred more zero-dollar-bills.  He attempted to store the money under the counter, and found that it would simply vanish.

As evening came, the two men stomped out to the middle of the road.
“You’re a cheater and a bastard and you’ve sucked my livelihood dry,” said Charles.  “How’m I supposed to make money when I can’t even finish a sentence without an insult, you festering maggot?”
Wednesday scowled, shuffling the blubber around his face.  “I could and can say the same thin’ to you, you little schemer.  How’m I supposed to make money when I can’t make money?!  You’ve RUINED me!”
“But you ruined me first, and I was here first, slimeball!”
“I was born here before you were!”
“Get off my land, lying sack of whore’s-get!” hissed Charles.  His teeth were bared, every single one showing in an expression that was to a smile what ulcers are to stomach linings.
“Over my dead body!” rumbled Wednesday.  He seemed to expand somehow; looming like a dung-beetle’s nest grown all out of proportion.
“Fine, shitheel!” said Charles, snapped his fingers and raising his screwdriver high.  It glistened with a sickly rainbow of oil.
“GOOD!” roared Wednesday, and they rushed at each other.
It was not a very good fight – the two men were both too out of shape for it – nor was it a particularly clean one – they hated each other too much for that – but it was certainly a memorable one.  Alas, by its end, there was no one around to remember it.

Some time later, the stranger came up the road again, much the same but for a few more scrapes and knocks.  The same could be said of his truck.
He looked at the store, and he looked at the gas station.  Both of them were missing down to the foundations, and the ground was scorched.  There was a large, blackened spot in the middle of the road that smelled of gasoline and sauerkraut.
“You know,” he said to nobody in particular, “you could’ve just settled it fair and square.”
There was no answer.  Some ends are harsh enough that even ghosts don’t want anything to do with them.
He barked that quick laugh of his again, and scratched away a few loose fleas from his neck.  “Have it your way.  You know, you boys had some real nice land of mine here.  It’s too bad you don’t want it anymore.”
He ambled over to his truck and left his clothes in it, then trotted away to find some lunch, tail wagging, mouth grinning, tongue dangling.

It’s not so hard to get rid of coyotes.  But if you don’t keep up on them, they’ll slink back in easy as you please.

“A Gentleman’s Bet,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor