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2010 Winners

Congratulations to the following writers who won the 2010 Sledgehammer prize packages!

First Place Individual: Josh Gross, “Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers”

First Place Team: Disciples of Ba’alat, “Varney’s Revenge”

Readers’ Choice: Bob Ferguson, “Riff Raff”

All winners will read their full stories at Wordstock this Saturday at noon at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. They’ll also be presented with their prize packages there, so don’t miss out on seeing all the goodies.

And of course, a great big thank-you goes out to all our sponsors who made this year’s prize packages worth over $6,000!

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Varney’s Revenge

Varney’s Revenge

by The Disciples of Ba’alat

The moon shimmered through the sparse clouds that blanketed the Santa Monica Mountains. Its light glistened off the freshly fallen rain that wetted Hollywood Boulevard.  A mild wind swooped from the ocean to the west, adding just a hint of chill to the summer night.  But a little brisk air never kept Lisa and her friends from looking their best.

Four tan and fit women strutted confidently down the boulevard, their high heels clicking in unison.  Shapely legs protruded underneath close-fitting dresses of various shades and colors.   They were newly employed, a year or two out of college, and shared a small two-bedroom apartment in nearby Glendale.  Rent was cheap, and it seemed as if they had more time and money than they knew what to do with.  Now they were partying in Hollywood four or even five nights a week, occasionally rubbing elbows with the stars.  Like the guy who played the cigar store owner on “Suddenly Susan.”  OK, maybe he wasn’t exactly a star, but he did get to spend some time working with Brooke Shields.  You couldn’t exactly say he was a nobody.

As they approached the King King Club, Lisa noticed a dark, mysterious figure leaning casually against a Wells Fargo ATM.  He looked as if he was ready to attend a mid 19th century masquerade ball.  His pointy black boots had almost no heel, but looked as if they were freshly polished.  Some blend between pants and tights were tucked into the boots, black as well.  A long paisley overcoat of various dark earth tones with billowy sleeves hid most of a thigh-length purple velvet tunic.  A black waistcoat and top hat completed the unlikely ensemble.

“Good evening, ladies.”  There was just a trace of an accent in his voice that Lisa could not identify.  Irish?  Scottish?  Either way, Lisa liked it.  “Are you unchaperoned this evening?  If so it would do me great honor to accompany you.”

Lisa eyed the club only a half-block away.  She was anxious to get inside and see if any celebrities were there today.  But this overly formal man intrigued her.  She heard her friends giggle behind her.

“But where are my manners,” the man continued.  “Please allow me introduce myself.  I am Sir Francis Varney, traveler of the world, liaison of nobility, and admirer of beautiful young ladies such as yourself.”  He paused as he realized that his eloquent words were not having their desired effect.  “I am also a vampire.”

“You’re a vampire?” said Lisa.  “I guess that would explain why you’re so pale.”

“Ah, my dear, I am but a humble servant of the night.  Do you know about the sun’s damaging effects on the skin?  We could discuss this at great length tonight, as I believe I can save you a lifetime of wrinkles and concern from skin cancer.”

Just then a stretch limo with vanity plates that read ‘SCK BLD’ pulled up beside the implausible quintet.  The vampire was upset to see all four girls stare admiringly at the vehicle.  As the back window powered down, the sounds of Lady Gaga escaped into the streetscape.  A familiar looking face emerged into the night air.  He wore a cloak.

“Lisa, darling, vat on earth are you doing here?”

“Dracula!”  The girl practically beamed.  “It’s so good to see you.”

“I certainly hope you vern’t thinking of attending King King tonight.  Za DJ is just terrible.  He does not know how to mix his bass.  You vould be much better served accompanying me to Les Deux. Vaht you need is a fashionable ride.”  He seemed to notice the other vampire, almost as an afterthought.  “Varney, my neighbor.  Good to see you as vell.”  He opened the limo door and gestured for the four young women to enter.  “I vant to thank you for looking after my lovely companions tonight. Please consider me in your debt.”

As Lisa entered the limo, she turned to smile at Varney.  It was only then that Varney noticed the two almost-healed puncture wounds on the side of her neck.

**************

The sun was just cresting over the mountains to the east and bathing the Hollywood Hills neighborhood in a soft light as Varney pulled his 1995 Acura Legend into his driveway.  He sat for a moment and stared through his tinted windows at Dracula’s house.  Perhaps palace was a better word describe it.  A dozen men in tidy brown uniforms swarmed across his yard.  Some were mowing grass, others pruning shrubs or pulling weeds.  Yet another was polishing a bronze statue of Dracula, placed less than discreetly in the middle of the turnaround.

Varney pivoted his head and observed his own unkempt yard.  Crabgrass poked through in several patches that were not shaded from the southern sun.  A Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can protruded from his shrubbery, likely a memento from Dracula’s last party left by a drunken guest.  All things considered, his smaller yard needed those twelve men’s attention much more than Dracula’s.

Varney knew he should spend the morning working on his lawn, but the sun was already getting too high for comfort.

He emerged from his car with speed and purpose, moving as a blur until he found solace in the shade of his awning.  He tapped a button on his keyless remote, activating his car alarm.  A neighbor in a silk bathrobe waved from across the street, morning paper in her other hand.

“Morning Varney!”

“Good morning Michelle.  I prefer ‘Sir Francis’ if you don’t mind.”

The middle-aged woman look perplexed.  She shrugged her shoulders.  “Varney is so much easier.  Warmer too.  You should stick with Varney.”  And with that she scurried back into her air-conditioned house.

Varney.  He had been known to everyone in the neighborhood as Sir Francis until he moved in next door.  It was a calculated attempt to undermine his influence.  And it had worked.  Dracula had swooped into the neighborhood five years ago like a bat out of hell, and Varney had been paying the price ever since.   His Memorial Day neighborhood barbeque was upstaged by the release of Dracula’s latest biography-  Bloody Fangs: How a humble vampire from Romania conquered Hollywood. All the attention he used to glean from his neighbors was now fully thrust upon that cape-wearing wannabe.  He was not longer Sir Francis, even in his own mind.

Varney sank into his Lay-Z-Boy and grabbed the remote control for his TV.  News- floods in Pakistan.  Something about the Kardashians.  Live cricket from England, maybe I’ll come back to this.

A vampire movie?

It was obvious before he even hit the information button on the remote that this was yet another film about Dracula.  Black cape, formal wear, slicked-back hair.  The look had become such an archetype for vampires that any vampire who wore a top hat was no longer taken seriously.  The picture shrunk into the corner of the screen as the information on the movie was presented.  Dracula AD 1972.  Varney had never heard of this movie.  But was that Saruman from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy playing Dracula?

Varney stared at the wet bar he kept stocked for his human guests.  It was times like these when he wished he could drink.  He glanced over at the coffee table  by his leather recliner and decided to open his mail from the day before.   He picked it up and looked through it casually.  Phone bill, a bank statement, advertised specials for the supermarket, and an official looking letter from the State of California.  Curious, he tore it open with the fingernail of his pinkie in one fluid motion.  As he unfolded the papers he felt a pang of frustration as he remembered an incident a few weeks ago, hurrying to get home before dawn.  He had to go hunting in Arcadia, about twenty miles east, and there had been an accident on Highway 210 on his return drive.  By the time he reached town he was blasting around blind corners and running stoplights to beat the rising sun.  Now he was looking at a photo of his’95 Legend, license plate DGT526Y, in the middle of the intersection of Fairfax and Fountain Ave.  In the drivers seat where Varney should have been a pair of RayBans seemed to be suspended in the air above the filled-out form of a white shirt and black overcoat.  Stamped in bold red letters at the bottom of the citation the words “CERTIFIED VAMPIRE” glared at him.   A legal substitute for a positive photo ID.  Varney resisted the urge to tear the paper to shreds, but he knew that wouldn’t make the expensive ticket go away.  Instead he set it back down on the coffee table and sank into his comfortable chair and lamented his situation.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago even, Varney had money.  Lots of it.  Centuries and centuries of preying upon the wealthy, stealing inheritances from mostly deserving offspring, making prudent investments, interest compounding upon interest and so on and so forth.  And then… Enron.  Varney ignored his instincts with Enron.  He had ridden the Microsoft train and his financial adviser was convinced this was another big ride in the making.  “If you didn’t have that sinful conservative streak in you, Varney, I’d throw all your eggs in that basket,” Tacker had said, ”trust me, Varney, that basket’s gonna be big enough they’ll each have their own silk pillow to rest on till you need ‘em.”

Against his better judgment he let Tacker put seventy five percent of his stocks in Enron, and the day it atrophied to a dollar all Tacker could say was,” It’s never a sure thing, Varney, it’s all a gamble.  And you can’t win if you don’t play.  Speaking of getting back in the game, I’ve got a bead on this company called Amazon, I really think this could be their year, Var-” but Varney hung up on him and never talked to him again.  He liquified his remaining assets and put them into an interest bearing checking account in the Hills of Hollywood Community Credit Union, where it has remained since, earning a modest but consistent 4.5 percent interest.  Plus now he gets his ATM fees reversed, up to ten a month.

Varney then turned to the advertising flier.  He skimmed through it, noting nothing of interest, but then he froze.  The back page supermarket advertisement had a picture of Dracula in the upper right hand corner smiling his big, toothy grin, with the caption” Sparkle, don’t Sizzle, even when it Drizzles!” splashed across the page.  A few squeeze bottles lined the bottom of the ad, some on their side, some standing up on their tops.  “Twilight Delight, SPF 30” the bottles read.   Human sunscreen infused with glittery highlights.   “That capitalistic parasite!”  Varney yelled to the walls.   Something needed to be done.  His instincts told him Dracula would only get more popular, more wealthy, more absolutely annoying.  He could move, but he was there first!  A childish thought, Varney knew, but didn’t care.  He liked his little house, and he shouldn’t have to be forced to move because his neighbor is a  party crazed blood sucker.  The wheels of revenge began to turn.

**************

There is a dedicated cadre of “blood brothers” bound together, not just by their thirst for the red nectar, but a mutual hatred for Dracula that runs deep and ancient as the Mariana Trench.

Through the centuries they utilized many forms of communication to coordinate plots against their common enemy-horseback messengers, bird couriers , Pony Express, the US Postal Service-each new incarnation seemingly slower than the previous.  With the advent of the internet, however, and online social networking, the heightened speed of collaboration on dastardly schemes invigorated their desire and capability for revenge.  Varney needed to vent his frustrations about the insidious Twilight Delight ad.  He knew misery loved company, and what better vehicle to commiserate than Facebook.  He logged on and began pounding on the keyboard, steam still blasting from his ears in hot rage.

My old friends, he typed, I cannot take it any longer.  I have decided to take action against Dracula.  It has come to my attention he is capitalizing on the ‘Twilight’ saga, selling his own brand of glittery sun block, so teenage girls everywhere can sparkle in the sun like their favorite pansy vampire from those horrid tales.  To make a mockery, much less a disgustingly huge profit, of an event that would destroy us forever should not be tolerated.  A vampire should know better.  It seems to rest on me, as his neighbor, to be the one to teach him. He sent his message.  Lord Ruthven replied almost immediately.  “Must be playing his X-box 360 live,” Varney thought as he opened Ruthven’s response.

I commend your dedication to the old ways, Varney.  I will be with you in mind, wishing I could be there in body as well.  Oh, by the way, I heard from his publicist that Dickula’s getting paid big bucks to make a personal appearance on Larry King Live.  Not to cause undue pressure on you, friend, but it would be a true joy to see him rendered unable to attend.  Best wishes on your endeavors,

Lord Ruthven.

Varney typed another message:  I have an idea that might make his life a little less glamorous. Keep checking your messages for the latest updates.  I’ll be in touch. He clicked send.

**************

After returning from another night of unsuccessful hunting, Varney hung his overcoat in the closet, and tossed his top hat on the antique coat rack by the door.  He walked into his living room to finish the nights as he always did – watching television. He plopped down in his brown cracked leather Laz-y-Boy, and started up a DVD he enjoyed watching from time to time:  Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Gary, who lived on the other side of Dracula’s obscene residence,  was the only remaining neighbor who still addressed him by his proper title, Sir Francis Varney.  He suspected it was Oldman’s incessant thespian nature and British heritage that compelled him to such formalities.  But he tolerated him nonetheless, and when Oldman stopped by to get some advice on playing Dracula’s part in the movie, Varney obliged, as Dracula himself was too busy running lines with that hack Keanu Reeves. “Hah,” Varney thought, “they should’ve called it Dracula and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”  He then selected the last scene from the start up menu and watched as Van Helsing crushed Dracula to dust.

Varney cringed as he heard a familiar sound – the thump, thump, thumping bass of Dracula’s stretch limo pulling up after a night at the club, filled with hangers-on and party-goers.  Probably went to that pretentious vampire lover’s club, Pure, Varney thought.  Dracula thinks he is so much better than the rest of us, only feeding on organically sustained high-brow blood. He seems to have forgotten his days prowling around behind the YMCA.  I’ll remind him of those less ‘pure’ times. He reached for his iPhone and used his restaurant finder app to locate the nearest Pizza Hut. “Good evening.  Do you still make that Garlic Lover’s pizza?” he asked.

Right on time, thirty minutes later, Varney looked out his living room window and saw a beat up teal Chevrolet Cavalier with a Pizza Hut cabbie topper pull into Dracula’s driveway.  A teenage boy staggered up the walkway to the door,  struggling to carry 10 large pizza boxes.  Dracula  emerged from within his house and approached the boy, just as a sudden breeze wafted a blast of garlic, assaulting his olfactory senses.

“Vat is dees? I did not order anything this evening,” he said, holding back the urge to vomit.

The boy looked past Dracula and saw the crowd of party-goers. “Maybe one of your guests ordered the pizzas,” the boy replied, looking nervous.

Dracula was about to angrily turn the boy away when a drunken raver came up behind him, noticing the stack of pizza boxes.  “Hey, C. Drak!  Nice work on the pizzas, man!” The partier brushed past Dracula and relieved the delivery boy of his burden and returned back into the house.  Dracula expelled a sigh of contempt and turned to the boy and said,” Very vell, young man.  It seems I owe you some money.  Come in, come in, enjoy the party while I retrieve my checkbook.  Do you accept checks?”

The boy followed Dracula inside as the party-goers cheered Dracula for the pizzas being devoured.  From the perch in his living room Varney chuckled, “Hah, no blood sucking from your Pure groupies tonight mother fucker, huh? Not after all of that garlic seeps into their bloodstreams.”

After re-watching the last scene again, Varney clicked off the television and turned to head upstairs to retire for the evening.  As he passed the stairwell window a flash of teal caught his eye. The delivery boy’s car was still parked in the entry to Dracula’s turnabout. He had delivered the pizzas nearly two hours ago.  A sinking feeling flooded his consciousness.  Varney realized his mistake.

When Dracula hosted a party, the blood of all guests would be sampled, providing enough blood to satiate him.  He had intended for the pizzas to taint the blood of Dracula’s guests, but he had unknowingly delivered an alternative meal.  Varney had taken away Dracula’s sample platter only to give him a young, tender main course.

**************

The music thumped.  It shook his walls, rattled the glasses in his kitchen pantry, and pressed against his windows in rhythmic vibration.  Damn that Dracula!  Did he ever get tired of throwing these obnoxious parties?  Only two evenings after the pizza delivery instance Dracula was at it yet again.

How could the other neighbors tolerate that music shaking their walls through all hours of the night.

But Varney knew why they tolerated it.  They were hangers-on, every last one of them.  Even Gary Oldman would bend over backwards before he would dare complain about the noise.

Varney lay in bed as the music pummeled the air around him.  He did not need to sleep, vampires don’t really need rest.  But he had always liked the idea of it.  He was one of the few vampires he knew who actually had bothered to buy a bed.  At first he thought he would use it to seduce the ladies.

Not every woman was keen on getting busy on the couch or the living room floor.  But with time he grew to enjoy the idea of lying in bed.   It made him feel like he was in pulse with the rest of the neighborhood.   They were all in their beds, and so was he.  It was communal.  Granted, all the humans were happily dreaming away, whereas Varney stared at the ceiling and lost himself in thought.  But at least it was similar to what the neighbors were doing.  And there was never anything worthwhile on TV late at night anyway.

A drunken party goer ran screaming with glee within a foot or two of his bedroom window.  Varney bolted upright and stared at the darkened shape as it sprinted along his house.  The screaming stopped.  Through the thicket of music Varney could make out the faint sounds of urine watering his azaleas.

“Vera, look at me!” screamed the muffled voice through the double-paned glass.  “I’m urinating on a vampire’s garden!”

Varney stared at his black Sanyo alarm clock.  The red numbers and letters screamed back at him.  4:47 A.M. For some reason he did not turn away.  He knew if he stared at the clock long enough it would eventually turn to 4:48.  He shifted his position in bed, moving his feet to one corner and his head to the opposite corner so that he would not have to strain his neck to view the clock.

4:47 A.M.

Fuck it.  Varney threw off the covers and paddled over to his nightstand, where he pulled his cell phone from the charger.  He cycled through his extensive list of contacts until he found the number he was looking for.  He knew Larry would not be up yet, but drastic times called for drastic measures.

“Hello?” queried a sleepy voice.

“Larry it’s me, Sir Francis Varney.”

There was a pause on the line.  “Who?”

Varney.  The vampire.”

“Oh, Varney!  What time is it?”

Varney ignored the question.  “I need you to accompany me to the grocery store.”

Another pause.  “Why?”

“I assure you Larry; I would not ask were it not of the utmost importance.  Shall I pick you up in ten minutes?”

There was yet another pause.  “I’ve got work in three hours.  I still need to shower…”

“Your employment in the field of security brokering is both commendable and imperative.  I will have you home from the Safeway in plenty of time to return to your morning routine.  And if you do prove to be tardy I will be more than willing to make a phone call to your employer on your behalf.”

“But-“

“Excellent.  I will be there in ten minutes.  Be ready.”  Varney hung up before Larry could refuse.

Nine minutes later Varney pulled his 1995 Acura Legend into Larry’s driveway.  He waited two minutes with the engine idling, and was about to storm the door when he saw Larry stumble outside.

Larry dropped his keys as he attempted to lock the door behind him.  As he bent over to retrieve them, Varney noticed that Larry’s formerly desirable ass had added a few pounds recently.  Varney thought about humans.  The years were rarely kind to them.  They gained weight, acquired wrinkles and stress like they were collectibles.  Fifteen years ago Varney would have slept with Larry.  He used to go to the gym three times a week.  He was never the most charming person, but for a human his personality had always proved palatable to Varney.  Now the vampire wondered if maintaining his “friendship” with the security broker was still worthwhile.   He thought of the task at hand and the help needed to accomplish it, and decided it was.

“Larry, so good to see you.  It’s been too long.”

“Uh, yeah,” mumbled, wiping sleep from his eyes.

Varney pulled out of the driveway and proceeded to double the speed limit down the residential street.  He reached over and turned up his stereo.

“Do you mind if I turn this Bauhaus down?”

Varney stared at Larry as if he had just grown a third arm.  “You don’t like Peter Murphy?”

“It’s not that…“  He paused.  “It’s just a little dark for me.”

“But I am a vampire.  Vampyr.  A creature of the night.  I, too, am ‘a little dark.’ “  He made air quotes with his fingers as he spoke.

“The last time I was in Dracula’s car he was playing Modest Mouse.  And he’s a vampire too.”

“Count Dracula does not have the extensive history that I possess.  My formidable years took place long before his existence, in a time of great peril and turmoil.”

Larry looked uncertain and sounded skeptical.   “Are you trying to tell me you’re older than Dracula?”

Varney slapped his forehead with his palm, causing his carefully coiffed hair to frazzle.  His eyes burned with intensity.  “I am Sir Francis Varney!  Traveler of lands!  Confidant of kings!  Sieghton! Mortimer!  Vampire of Legends!  I was in full glory before Dracula’s father was even born.  It’s all there in Wikipedia!  Look it up dammit!  Look it up!”

**************

Varney shielded his eyes from the fluorescent lighting of the produce isle.  Why these imbeciles insisted on flooding their fruits and vegetables with such intensive lighting was a mystery to him. In front of him the cilantro glistened from manufactured mist while the sprinkler above the green bell peppers dripped with condensation.  Larry leaned tiredly against the romaine lettuce bin.

“Excuse me Miss?  Is this all the garlic you have to sell?”

The Safeway clerk eyed Varney’s black trench coat and gloves suspiciously.  Who would wear such a thing in the middle of summer?  She seemed to reach the decision that Varney’s presence posed her no immediate danger.

“There’s the organic bin over there,” she pointed warily.

“But that’s $5.99 a pound!”

The clerk shrugged her shoulders and took a slow, half-step back, hoping Varney would not notice.

“Is there another Safeway nearby?” asked Varney.

“There’s one a few miles down Del Coro Road,” she offered.

“No way,” interjected Larry.  “I don’t have time to drive all over town looking for garlic.”

Varney narrowed his eyes at the security broker, also causing him to take a step back and avert his gaze.  The vampire thrust the shopping basket in his gut.

“Fine.  Fill this with all the garlic they have.  Conventional and organic.  I’ll meet you in the checkout.”

“Wait, is this why you dragged me out of bed, to shop?  What the hell, Varney!  You want me to grab a few frozen dinners and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, too?   I got to be at work in less than three hours!”

Varney took a step towards Larry and intensified his stare.

“Would you rather I fed on a warmer source, Larry?”  Varney grabbed the side of his neck firmly, rubbing his thumb over Larry’s jugular.   Larry trembled.  “No, I didn’t think so.  Now go, fetch me the garlic.”

**************

The checkout clerk stared with uncertainty at the shopping basket before him.  The plastic blue basket was overstuffed with a heaping mound of garlic.  More than a family of 12 would need in a year.  On top sat three precariously positioned pairs of latex dishwashing gloves.

“Sir,” the clerk asked sleepily.  “Did you mix the organic garlic with the conventional?

Varney narrowed his eyes at the clerk.  He glanced at the sliver nametag fastened above the left breast pocket of his uniform.  Larry looked off in the distance, hoping to remain out of this conversation.

“Listen Armando,” snapped Varney.  “I cannot be expected to organize my purchases as such. It is incumbent upon you as an assistant  to the proprietor of this operation to know your merchandise and charge me accordingly”

Armando stared down at the mass of garlic before him as he dissected the customer’s words.

He carefully removed the latex gloves and slid them over the scanner.  “But some of the stickers have fallen off,” he stated.

Varney smiled and leaned forward.  “I assure you that any garlic without a sticker is conventional.”  He gave Armando a conspiratorial wink as he swiped his debit card.

Armando sighed as he separated out the garlic.  The store had opened twelve minutes ago and it was shaping up to be one of his worst days on the job in months.  “Do you have a Safeway Club card?”

“I believe I do.”

**************

Varney cringed as he ran the last of the garlic though this Kitchen Aid 700 Watt food processor.  The stench of nine and a half pounds of puréed garlic was causing his eyes to water and his stomach to churn.  He leaned his head back, hoping to avoid the noxious fumes.

Larry had served his purpose.  Without him Varney couldn’t have possibly handled the large quantity of garlic by himself without repulsion.  That is, of course, without the large latex gloves he had also purchased.  The old security broker helped Varney unload the sack of garlic onto the kitchen counter before Varney sped him back home.

The microwave clock told him it was 10:27 A.M.  Perfect.  Dracula would be doing his call-in radio program until noon, and usually got home at least an hour after.  Most of the other neighbors would be at work, except for that nosy Gary Oldman.  You would think he would be able to land another role by now, rather than reading porn wrapped inside the morning paper by his pool in his bathrobe all day.

Varney dumped the last of the garlic into the bucket.  He then pulled out the T-shirt cannon he had bought that morning.  Varney had been to five shops before he finally found someone who both had the cannon in stock and was willing to sell it to him.  Who knew buying a T-shirt cannon would prove so difficult?

The vampire pulled open a kitchen drawer and removed a new bottle of Count Dracula’s Sunscreen for Vampires: SPF 190.  He was loathe to admit it, but the Draculotion was the only sunscreen that kept him safe from the sun for more than ten minutes after a dose.  He slathered the white lotion on his face and neck, digging deep below his collar just to be safe.

Minutes later Varney was in Dracula’s back yard.  He studied the surroundings.  The ash tree would be his best bet.  The vampire carefully inserted eye-bolts from the top of the awning to the corner of the house where nearest the tree.  He used his Leatherman to puncture a small hole in the awning.  He then painstakingly threaded his fishing line through the eye-bolts, and attached one end to the screen door.  Finally he climbed the tree, where he fastened the other end of the fishing line to the T-shirt cannon stuffed with puréed garlic.  He selected his brown duct tape from his tool kit, as the color nearly matched the shade of the tree, and wrapped in several times around the limb.

Varney flashed a huge smile as he surveyed his work.  The trap was set, now it was just a matter of waiting.

Waiting sucks, thought Varney.  He checked his digital watch.  11:31 p.m. He had been hiding in Dracula’s shrubs with his Sony digital camcorder for nearly an hour, waiting for him to emerge though his sliding patio door.  Against his better instincts, the vampire selected a small pebble and threw it against the patio door.  He missed badly, and the pebble bounced nearly silently off the stucco exterior.

“Blast!”

He glanced around in the dark.  There were no other small pebbles in Dracula’s well manicured back yard.  He picked up a decorative cobble the size of his fist.  It was all he could find.

The rock hit the patio door with a thunderous boom.  A spider web crack sprang to life on the glass, causing Varney to convulse with silent laughter.

Dracula came roaring out into the night.  “Who threw this?  Do you know who I am?”

Varney stared in dismay at the limb of the ash tree holding his hidden T-shirt cannon, still loaded and charged.    The branch hung from the weight of the gun, flaccid and useless.  Varney silent cursed and shook his head.  The vampire was unscathed, and certainly not covered in garlic.  Why had the cannon not detonated?  He waited until Dracula angrily stormed back into his house before leaving.  He dare not check on the cannon tonight.  Perhaps tomorrow he would try it again.

**************

Varney stared out of his living room window.  He was absolutely drenched in that torrid Draculotion after having spent two hours mowing his lawn.  He knew he should shower off the sunscreen, but for some reason he felt compelled to rest for a moment first.  It was what humans would do.

He spotted something through the dirty glass. Dracula was on his back patio, inspecting the damage to his sliding glass door from the previous night.  It appeared he had forgone his namesake sunscreen in favor of a black-out vampire umbrella.  Would he find the T-shirt cannon?  Sure enough, something glistening in the sun caught the count’s eye.  Varney watched in dismay as he discovered the fishing wire, and began to trace its course back up the ash tree to the limb that held the garlic-loaded weapon.

Perhaps the fool will fall out of the tree and hurt himself.  Varney hurriedly ran to his closet and grabbed his camcorder.  Most likely nothing would happen to the count, but Varney would curse himself if he missed an opportunity.  “What you need is a nice, embarrassing video old friend,” he said to the window.

Pressed against the ground next to the shrubs Varney felt like a hooligan.  Was the small chance that Dracula might climb the tree and hurt himself really worth this ordeal?  What if one of the neighbors saw him?  He glanced behind him and observed that Gary Oldman’s house was clearly visible from his current position.  Hopefully Gary was sleeping in this morning.

Varney watched through the viewfinder as Dracula discovered the T-shirt cannon.  He cautiously tested a foot against a crevice in the trunk, then seemed to think better of the idea.  Instead the vampire grabbed a long branch from the ground and circled around to the front of the cannon where it was closest to the ground.  He poked cautiously at the machination, apparently unsure of its purpose.

Suddenly the branch gave way with the extra weight.  The cannon fell to the ground, and the world exploded in garlic.  The impact must have jolted the trigger.  Even from 30 yards away, Varney could smell the toxic herb.  Dracula must have taken a direct hit, as his face and chest were covered in the purée.

The vampire dropped his umbrella and fell to the ground, belly-up and spread eagle, wailing like a child.  Smoke gushed from his exposed skin.  He attempted to rise but there was no strength in his limbs.  The sunlight burned through his meager robe, leaving it singed against his smoldering skin.

The count tried in vain to reach for his umbrella, but a breeze swooped in through the valley and carried it just out of reach.

Varney watch in a mixture of curiosity and horror and Dracula shrunk into a pile of dust.  So this is what it looks like when a vampire dies.  All these decades of existence, and Varney had never witnessed such an event.  He looked down at the skin on his own hands.  A faint wisp of smoke was beginning to circle around the skin.  His realized his sunscreen was wearing off, and scampered back inside his house.

After washing off the remainder of the sunscreen, Varney booted up his laptop.  He posted his newly filmed snuff video to an anonymous account on YouTube, and then posted a link to the video on his Facebook account.  Within the next few minutes there were already five thousand views of the video on You-Tube, and his vampire cohorts from around the world gave his Facebook link a thumbs up.  For the first time in five years, Varney was feeling optimistic about his life at 324 S. San Rafael Dr.

For a little while.

**************

It wasn’t long before the world descended upon Dracula’s estate.  TV vans, cable news reporters, helicopters buzzing overhead twenty four hours a day.  On the third day after Dracula perished in the sun, Gary Oldman was set to give a poignant press conference on the front steps of Dracula’s home in tribute to the fallen media darling.  A news van, apparently late for the speech, screeched down the street in total disregard of the neighborhood speed limit.  Varney watched through his window in dismay as the eighteen foot van attempted to squeeze into a sixteen feet of asphalt in front of his lawn.  After running over his sunflower, the van knocked over Varney’s mailbox.  The driver stopped and looked out of his window to see what he had hit.  The newsman shrugged and proceeded to back further over the mailbox, rendering it completely inaccessible.

Something had to be done with this media circus. Since Dracula’s death there were nothing but reruns of Bram Stoker’s damn Dracula movie, commercials for Dracula memorabilia, and even the one station he had come to rely on for balanced thoughtful news the one place he could hear of the world carnage and not Dracula – NPR – was playing, no LOOPING,  Dracula’s interviews with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

In a bold move Varney walked across the driveway to where a teary eyed Gary was standing and clasped him in a one armed embrace.  This had to come to an end, all of it.

He leaned over the sea of microphones ready to tell the world that he was older than Dracula, taught the damned child what it was like to be a vampire. To tell the world that while they wept for Dracula that they could instead embrace him, he is the Original Vampire, he was here first!!

Yet Gary collected himself quickly and spoke first.

Gary’s watery snort echoed through the mics, and he smiled at Varney and said, “Dracula’s best friend, people!”  Cheers from the crowd.  “Here he is braving the sun to be here.” another watery snort, “Amazing the love you have for him to be here, God bless you. This here, people,” Gary said addressing the crowd of onlookers that Varney now realized took up the entire street and neighboring lawns, “is Dracula’s best friend and protégée.   Dracula taught him everything he knows, he taught him so well that I consulted with him on the movie when Dracula couldn’t.” Turning back to Varney, but talking loud enough for the world to hear, “I know how much Dracula meant to you so I’m glad you are here for this.” Gary said, voice warbling.

Varney couldn’t believe his ears, this was not happening. He was too stunned to interrupt.

“The president of the United States called me this morning and  wanted me to tell the nation on his behalf that the day Dracula died will live on forever and in our hearts as well as our calendars. That day will now be known as Dracula Day. “  An eruption of applause and hoots.  “I have a surprise my self, people.  I bought this property from escrow and will transform Dracula’s house into a museum so that all his fans can take a pilgrimage here, so his legacy can be witnesses by the masses!!” he said triumphantly.

Varney felt the world tilt, it could not get worse.  How could it have gone so badly?  The merchandise, the 24/7 media coverage, a holiday, and now a house that his degenerate fans to flock to!?

“That damn You-Tube!” he growled under his breath.

“And -” Gary said and turned, biting his fist trying to stem the tide of emotion, “And, Dracula’s statue, a glorious monument even in life, will now be illuminated all hours of the night to pay homage to one of the world’s most beloved icons.”

**************

Varney’s cell phone rang.  Again.  Varney stared in dismay at the caller ID.  Another unlisted number.  Ever since Dracula’s death Sir Francis had been hounded by calls from the media.  What was Dracula really like?  How wild were his parties?  Is it true about Dracula and Sandra Bullock?

Against his better judgment, Varney answered the call.  After all, he was a gentleman.

“Good evening, you have reached the phone of Sir Francis Varney.  How may I be of assistance?”

“Um, is this Varney?  Varney the Vampire?”

“My surname is Varney young man.  And whom might you be?”

There was a pause on the line while the caller seemed to collect his thoughts.  “Mr. Varney-“

Sir Varney.”

Another pause.  “Yes, this is Harold Miller from the Larry King Show.  I know this is awkward timing with the death of your friend Count Dracula and all.  But we need a replacement for his spot on the show and we feel if we approach the interview in a dignified man-“

“I’ll do it.”

The only things worse than the glare of the studio lighting was the up-close and personal view of Larry King’s skin.  My God, is this what he really looks like in person?  Wrinkled, saggy skin hung loosely from his jowls, seemingly attempting to reach his suspenders for some unknown reason.

Caked-on TV makeup muted the atrocities of his damnable pores somewhat, but this was offset by the stench and unsightliness of his hair gel attempting to keep his unruly mane from revealing the liver spots plastered across his head.

At last the producer motioned for the beginning of the show.  Some lights dimmed while others seemed to intensify.  The director counted down with his fingers, and the venerable Larry King turned towards his guest.

“We have with us tonight, Barney the Vampire-”

“Varney.  Sir Francis Varney.  I’m in Wikipedia.  Look it up.”

© 2010 Bobbi Shadel, Chris Lytsell, Adam Stonewall, Rebecca Banks, Karen Owen

“Varney’s Revenge” won the 2010 First Place Team prize.

Riff Raff

Riff Raff

by Bob Ferguson

I would attack them from a hiding place in plain sight. They would never expect an assault from a pariah of society. I planned to steal enough of their money to skip to Portugal or South America and live comfortably for life. Except—I had no life. They took it when they hooked Jess, my son on drugs—and he overdosed.

Drugs are every parent’s nightmare. At our wits end, we used the tough-love technique espoused by the current psycho-gurus and kicked Jess out of the house the day he turned eighteen. Through teary eyes at his funeral my wife, Jenny said “We drove him straight into their ripping claws.” She was right. The guilt, self-hate was intolerable. Ten days after his service Jenny found the easy way out—sleeping pills.

There was no celebration of life, no service, and no obituary for either of them. I buried each with a simple marker in the family plot where I had expected to be the first to rest. I headed home after the burial. No purpose. No feeling. No reason to live. On the two-lane road back down the hill it would be easy to give the wheel a quick jerk to the left into the path of an on-coming semi-truck. Swift. Quick. Sure. But with every passing second, like an infectious fever, hate began permeating the cells of my numb body. As a driving force, hate seemed more dominant than love. Vile loathing was giving me an insidious purpose for living—to seek retribution. They would pay dearly for what they had taken from me.

Parks had always been a pleasant place to while away a few hours with the family. Birds liked the high canopies of the tall oaks and centuries of adaptation had superbly equipped the squirrels for climbing trees more nimbly than Olga Korbut on the balance beam. I had no one to enjoy it with. I was wretchedly alone. The sounds and sights held no joy.

The park was further degraded, by the scum of humanity scattered about in old quilts, filthy sleeping bags and the rags on their backs like a human garbage dump. They reminded me of the dregs of the second wine bottle I was devouring. As disgusting as these human vermin were, they would be good camouflage for me to carry out my vengeance in the place where I knew Jess first began using drugs—the Park Blocks.

My .38 snub nosed service revolver that I had carried in Vietnam gave me a feeling of protection. It was stuffed into the field jacket that I had picked up at a surplus store. My gray hair was matted and matched my five days of stubble. The black stocking cap made me indistinguishable from the other homeless people who were in various stages of reverie induced by booze or drugs. I had become Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” Life was imitating art.

It always surprised me that buying drugs was so easy. I wondered why a prosecutor simply didn’t grant amnesty to the guy at the lowest level if he ratted on his supplier. Then that supplier gets amnesty if he finks on his source, right on up to the top. I would prove my own theory. I would wait for the mule, the delivery man, the creep that made it possible to get my son hooked. It would be easy to follow him to his connection and follow that link to the next guy in the chain of command. I couldn’t offer amnesty, but a .38 in his face would be even a more convincing argument to become a stoolie. After I killed a few, they would know that Portland is no place for pushers.

“I’m Joe,” I said to a guy on a park bench as I screwed off the top of a fresh bottle of vintage MD 20/20 and handed it to him. “My wife was Jenny, my son was Jess. We called ourselves the “J” family,” I continued trying to be friendly.

“They call me Riff, I used to play the guitar on stage,” he said before he took a deep swig like it was the elixir of youth and he wanted to be a teenager again.

“I’d like to score a little Mary Jane,” I said trying to sound like an entrenched user.

“Haven’t heard that term in a while. If you mean pot, just watch that corner down there and you’ll see a guy who seems to talk to everybody. I’m tapped out or I’d give you some.”

It was a generous offer from a guy who seemed to be on his last legs.

“Keep that bottle of Mad Dog, I appreciate your info,” I said sauntering off toward a bench that had just become available with a better view of the corner.

His pants hung so low I wondered what held them up. A black baseball cap with a flat bill was stuffed sideways on a thick head of black hair. He was, it pained me to admit it, a handsome Latino. Even under his baggy hoodie you could tell he had a powerful build. Long silver chains draped down his sides and seemed to have no purpose other than decoration. He had mastered the art of smoking and talking incessantly on a cell phone at the same time.

It was a week day and he was busy. It was a quick reach into his fanny pack, a simple handshake, hug or short huddle and that was it. Money, pot, and short greetings were exchanged. It surprised me how many people dressed in suits and ties shook his hand. A bank of gray clouds created a sun screen that added an even darker mood to the nefarious activities taking place right in front of me.

He periodically got into a white, souped up Honda with dark tinted windows. He would be gone for a little while and then reappear on the same corner after stepping off the light rail stop just across the street.

The day was getting away from me. The Charles Bronson in me wanted action, but if I was careless it would be dangerous, maybe fatal. I feigned sleeping, reading the newspaper and if a stranger walked by I would even ask for spare change just to blend in with the vagrants.

The mark I had selected for my wrath would not be easy. He appeared to work alone, but there were always a few guys that looked just like him standing nearby. “His homies in hoodies,” I chortled to myself. It had been a long time since I had chortled, but it was not the good kind. I decided those stupid chains must be some sort of Ninja weapon. Even if they weren’t, he might be carrying and getting him alone would take some doing. They were wary, always looking for cops, rival gangs, and whatever other threats druggies face. They looked at me, but only saw the lowest of all life forms sitting on the park bench. Hiding in plain sight was perfect.

After a few hours the white Honda came by and he again got in. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to one. In almost exactly a half hour he again hopped off the Max line at the same stop—alone. That was it! I had my first victim in my sights. They had a time schedule for dropping off money and reloading with drugs and it matched the Max train schedule!

In the, invariably out of toilet paper, seedy, and filthy, public restroom, I shaved and washed my face. From my backpack I took out a non-descript jacket. I was ready.

“Riff, I’ll give you five bucks to watch this bundle for me. I’ll give you another ten when I return, is that a deal?” I asked laying the pack next to him.

“You sure you can trust me?” He said.

“Your cap says you’re a Vietnam vet or is that just brag?” I asked.

“No way! I joined the Marines right out of high school,” he said looking me in the eyes seeking a clue for some sense of trust.

“Well, Semper Fi my friend. Once a Marine always a Marine and this ol’ Marine needs your help, if I’m not back by 5:30 this evening, you can have it all,” I said walking away. I knew I had him with the Semper Fi.

Like clockwork, the white Honda came by at 3:45 on their two hour schedule. That meant that my Latino friend would conduct his business with those behind the darkened windshield and according to the Max schedule at his exit stop he would arrive back at almost exactly 4:15 pm., but I had a surprise for him.

I hustled down two blocks where the schedule read the next pickup headed north would be at 4:10 pm. It was in the “Fareless Square” so all I had to do was hop on and take a seat.  The train was deserted. He was easy to spot, sitting in the back of the second car with his feet stretched out taking up an entire seat. I took the seat directly across the aisle from him.

“There’s a whole car man, why you got to be right here in my face?” He said in broken English pronouncing “you” like the first syllable of Ju Ju Bean.

“I thought I knew you from somewhere,” I said.

“Now dat you know you don’t know me, I say you should move,” he said bobbing his head in a smart-alec way. I still wondered why the word “you” was such a tongue twister.

Physically, at 60 years old, I was no match for him, but I wanted to slap his silly face. I stood up like I was going to change seats and in a flash I pulled the .38 from my jacket pointed it at his face and said “Don’t move! My little friend here says I know you from the corner by the park, now put your feet down and your hands on the back of the seat in front of you.”

He stopped smiling. I slid into the seat behind him with the pistol pushed into the middle of his back. I wanted to pull the trigger and just leave him sitting there hunched over, but I had a problem. The gun was loaded with ammunition that was over forty years old and the bullets were green tracers. It was meant to be used as a survival pistol in case the F-4, in which I flew as a navigator on photo reconnaissance missions, was ever shot down. The green tracers were used instead of flares to notify the rescue choppers that I was a friendly force. A snub nose is not as accurate as a longer barrel, but there was a chance it could go clean through and ricochet hurting a bystander. I had never fired the pistol. Not even in Vietnam and I wasn’t sure what it would do.

“You, you are a dead man,” he said in anger making the “Y” sound even more like a “J.”

“So are you, if you don’t do exactly as I say.”  It was a bluff. “With your left hand, unbuckle that fanny pack and hand it back to me.”

For emphasis, I cocked the gun and pushed it harder into his back.

“It’s got a hair trigger,” I lied.

I took the fanny pack while moving the gun to the back of his head.

“Your buddies will be looking for you as we pass the park and what you need to do to stay alive is to wave to them as we go by.”

As we passed the park he was waving and I was holding up the fanny pack and flipping them the bird. Cute, but it was immensely stupid on my part. He knocked the gun from my hand, grabbed it and pulled the trigger—thank God the ammo was manufactured by the lowest bidder.  It didn’t fire. I had a second chance and pulled a lock-back knife with a 5” blade from my pants pocket. He was unimpressed and pulled out a 15” bayonet.

The train jerked to a stop, the doors opened and a passenger jumped on and quickly clubbed my nemesis from behind with a policeman’s night stick.

“Semper Fi,” said Riff. “I saw his amigos scattering when they thought they’d catch hell for losing the money and the pot. Then I saw him knock the gun out of your hand so I ran to the next stop. Lucky for you I always carry this souvenir night-stick for protection. A cop lost in a park scrum a while back.”

The dealer was stirring as we hopped off, ran back to the park, grabbed our gear and hailed a cab. It felt great to strike a blow for the good guys.

We gave the money to a homeless shelter, and the dealer resembled a body that was fished out of the Willamette River a few days later. The police speculated he had stolen some money and drugs from a local gang. Go figure.

Riff needed a place to live. I needed company. He’ll be living with me for a while.  He’s a pretty good guitarist. He plays and sings on open mic nights at a few blues joints. We’ve gotten involved in some veteran’s causes and my problems seem no worse than many others who are putting their lives back together.

I suppose life can imitate art, but it’s better to leave the vigilante stuff to the trained professionals. And what became of the pot? We’re Marines, not saints for cryin’ out loud.

© 2010 Bob Ferguson

“Riff Raff” won the 2010 Readers’ Choice Award.

Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers

Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers
by Josh Gross

Before Ned had been crushed by a drunk driver last month, Dexter had been able to perform surveys with ease. He almost liked it, the way you could knock on a total strangers door and get a tiny window into their life through their answers to simple questions: Do you have a job, kids? Who are you voting for? What brand of toothpaste do you feel best represents you as a person? But now those simple questions drilled into his head during training were gone. In their place: pain. No matter how hard Dexter tried to think of anything else, it seemed to inevitably drift to images of Ned alone on a darkened street fully aware that his guts were dripping out of his ass and that even if anyone could hear his panicked whimpering, there wasn’t a thing they could do to help him. Any sort of conversation had become impossible. A supermarket cashier had asked Dexter how he was that day and he’d almost told her.

In fact that was the worst part: Dexter wanted to tell people. He wanted to walk up to strangers on the street and shout that Ned was a great guy, the best, and that he was fucking dead, then sob on their shoulders. But he couldn’t. He was just composed enough to realize that would be insane. And it would be even worse to knock on someone’s door to shout at them about the death of some teenager they’d never met; definitely a fireable offense. And that wasn’t something Dexter could risk. It had been months since his last job and his landlord wasn’t the type for charity. He and Ned had planned to move to the coast and look for work on a boat, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. This job was all he had even though the act of doing it made him physically sick.

The first day back, terrified he would be fired, Dexter had filled in the survey cards on his own as he hyperventilated in an alley. Then he did it again the next day. And the next. And though he’d gotten out of the alley, he hadn’t knocked on a single door since. Instead he used the available clues every house displayed to fill in the answers. Minivan in the driveway? Kids. Volkswagen van? Liked natural soap. Manicured yards meant career professionals and unkempt ones indicated academics. Apartment-dwellers worked in the service industry. And then there was the wealth of data available from bumper stickers. They almost did his market surveys for him. Dexter justified it to himself as educated guesses. His answers were based on his observations from the time when he actually did his job properly, and though it would have been easy for him to fill in extra cards to boost his numbers, he never did. He wasn’t a crook; he was hanging on to a very thin thread, one that he could suddenly see was about to unravel.

“Did you hear me?” Roddy said.

“Yeah,” Dexter mumbled. “You’re going to do evaluations during tomorrow’s rounds.”

“Right, so fair warning and all that,” he grunted.

Dexter agreed. It was fair. And that was probably more than he deserved.

The van ride to turf the next day was torture. Primarily because no one else seemed remotely concerned. Tina about a club she’d hit over the weekend while Diane put on sunscreen and Jim restlessly scanned through radio stations. Michelle didn’t say a thing, but she never had. Just sat in the back listening to a set of oversized headphones. Roddy was going over routes on his clipboard in the shotgun seat.

It was the first time anyone had sat there since Ned’s last day.

Dexter was trying to silently rehearse his rap, but he instead found himself staring at the seat for blocks at a time. Next thing he knew they were at the drop point and he felt ready to vomit.

“I’m gonna start with Tina,” Roddy said, slamming the van door shut. He wriggled his mustache as he checked something off on his clipboard. “You all know what to do. I’ll catch up with you when it’s your turn.” Then he hitched up his pants and started off in the direction of Tina’s turf. Tina shrugged to Diane and hurried to catch up.

“What a miserable fuckwad,” Jim chuckled. “Wants to follow us around being all serious. A monkey could do this job, you know. A retarded monkey even. With a gimp-leg.”

“Right,” Dexter offered halfheartedly.

“I should be a doing carpentry. But whatcha gonna do, right? I got kids to feed.”

Dexter just nodded, standing still as Jim started off in the direction of his turf. Rebecca’s back was already vanishing into the distance. But Dexter stood still, pretending to get his paperwork in order until Jim was out of sight as well. Then he sat down on the curb, sucking in breath after useless breath. He couldn’t do this. And yet he had to. That was all there was to it.

“Just stand up, start walking,” he said to himself. “And quit talking to yourself,” he hissed. He sucked in a few more breaths, then stood and forced himself to walk in the direction of his turf for the day.

He found the first house after ten minutes or so. It towered three stories above the ground with trees positioned around the grounds like sentries. Dexter felt his chest tighten up at the thought of laying siege to a castle like this and kept walking, cussing under his breath. He reached the end of the block, then turned around and came back determined to give it a go. He knew he couldn’t hide any more. But the house looked no less imposing on second glance, Dexter’s breathing was no less labored and Ned was more alive.

Ned wouldn’t have had this problem, Dexter thought. He could’ve charmed the pants off a nun in the middle of an earthquake. I can’t even keep it together enough to ask them about bath products.

“Okay, okay, okay, okay,” he wheezed. “What you need is a nice start. Get things going easy until you get your groove and then get back on the horse.” Dexter knew this was a bullshit cop-out, but it was at least a sensible one.

He looked the house over a few times and decided it was clearly owned by a contractor, one who’d built an extra floor on his place for practice and who’d been able to afford it through aggressive use of generic dish soaps. Three kids. Easy as pie, Dexter thought. He strolled to the next house where a pair of childless lesbian architects insisted on recycled packaging and then next where a widower preferred spearmint toothpaste for his two prized show bulldogs. There was actually a bumper sticker claiming registry in the AKC, so Dexter didn’t feel this was too absurd.

He was cooking along, but still didn’t feel ready. Though that didn’t really matter anymore. He had to get it together before Roddy came along or he’d be fired for sure. And as bad as he felt now, that would be worse. The next house would be the point where he turned it all around.

It was a white tudor surrounded by a picket fence and a lush green lawn, like something out of a ‘50s sitcom. The elderly woman who lived inside probably baked cookies and threw the neighborhood Christmas party. This was the kind of house he could handle.

Dexter stepped through the gate feeling confident that even if he broke down, a kindly soul like that would probably invite him in for hot chocolate.

The giant Doberman that suddenly appeared was a whole different matter. Dexter sprinted back out the gate to what he thought would be safety. However the Doberman seemed to think of the fence as little more than a formality and hurdled it with ease. Dexter sprinted down the sidewalk for dear life and desperately scrambled up a tree in front of the next house with the Doberman close behind. He’d gotten a good hold of the lowest branch, but Dexter struggled to hoist himself all the way up. Instead he clung to the bottom of the branch with the snarling dog’s impossibly large mouth nipping at his bum.

With a tremendous effort, Dexter hooked his heel onto the next branch and pulled himself to safety, though he felt something in his calf strain and stretch in a way he knew it wasn’t prepared for.

The dog wasn’t snarling anymore. Instead it was sitting perfectly still, staring at him, ears and eyes as sharp as its teeth. Dexter’s clipboard and survey forms lay scattered around the dog’s position like a nest.

Dexter chuckled to himself. So long as the dog stayed put, he’d just gotten a reprieve.

It had been dark for at least a half-hour when Dexter heard someone calling his name.

“Over here,” he said. “But be careful of the—”

“What are you doing up there?” Michelle asked, suddenly appearing beneath the tree. She patted the Doberman on the head. It nuzzled up against her, then wandered off.

“Nothing.” Dexter said. He lowered himself down cautiously.

“Everyone’s been waiting for you.”

“Sorry.” Dexter gathered the scattered forms. “I’m ready now,” he said.

Michelle lead the way back to the van through the darkened neighborhood.

“What were you doing out here anyway?” Dexter asked.

“Roddy sent us to find you,” she said. “After what happened to Ned…”

“Right.” Dexter just realized that in the panic of running from a mad, apparently sexist, dog, he’d forgotten all about Ned and he felt a brief pang of guilt and choked up a little bit.

“Are you all right,” Michelle asked.

“Yeah, just, I’ve never known anyone who died before. It’s a lot to process.”

They walked the next block in silence, then Michelle suddenly stopped.

“Look, I wasn’t going to say anything because I know you think Ned was your friend and all, but I can see you’re really broken up about this and you have to know, he’s not worth it. Not worth a single tear.”

“What do you mean?” Dexter felt a little hole burning in his chest.

“Fuck it, I don’t mean anything,” Michelle said and started walking again.

“Wait, no stop… Clearly you mean something, so what is it?”

“He just wasn’t such a stellar guy, that’s all.” She kept walking.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Then you shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“Fine,” she snapped. “You ever wonder why he took this job?”

“It’s a tough market. Everyone’s gotta get by.”

“Yeah, but did you ever notice how while we’re just getting by he never seemed to be short on cash.”

Dexter tried to remember who’d picked up the majority of the lunch tabs, but this was all happening too quickly for him to think clearly. “I don’t know, maybe.”

“Yeah, well, trust me, he did. And that’s because he was a mule.”

“A what?”

“A mule? A deliveryman for drugs.”

Though she’d said it of Ned, it felt like a personal accusation against Dexter. “That’s not true,” he stammered.

“Fine, it’s not true.” She started walking again and Dexter trotted after her.

“How do you know?”

Michelle kept walking.

“How do you know?”

“I just do, all right?,” she said. “Just like I know that’s why he wanted to go work on a boat and why he wanted to take you with him. I used to think he was my friend too.”

“Why did he want those things?”

But Michelle didn’t answer. She put on her headphones and grunted for him to hurry up.

When they got back to the van a few minutes later, Roddy asked where he’d been and not knowing what else to say, Dexter told him the truth.

“I was in a tree hiding from a giant dog.”

Roddy chuckled. “You must have been over on 35th today, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Probably shoulda warned you about Cujo. He goes after someone every time we’re working this neighborhood.”

“Yup,” Dexter said, feeling his skin bristle. “You probably should have said something.”

“It’s all right,” Roddy said. “I guess we’ll just have to do your evaluation tomorrow.”

“Fantastic,” Dexter said.” He didn’t say another word for the rest of the drive.

The next day’s turf was the kind of sub-development where every third house is exactly the same, along with every resident. It was exactly the kind of place where Dexter’s strategy to avoid human contact would have worked flawlessly, were he allowed to use it. But the instant the van was parked, Roddy got out and down to business.

Roddy made the standard mark on his clipboard and hitched up his pants. “Let’s get this over with,” he said gruffly. Dexter thought he looked the tiniest bit like a Walrus.

Regardless, he followed behind in silent dread. On top of the anxiety over actually talking to anyone today, Dexter no longer knew what to think about Ned, who’d brought it on in the first place. Since Ned was gone, there was no way to confirm or deny anything Michelle had said. But even if he could, would it matter? Ned had shown Dexter what ropes weren’t plainly visible in this job and offered him a friendly ear after their shifts ended. And then he had died miserable, scared and alone. The image was so real to Dexter he felt as if he’d been there, as if he was the one whose bones and innards were crushed beneath a set of Goodyears, whose blood trailed for half a block and who the papers has said was still conscious for an hour after being hit.

“All right, first house on your list, here it is,” Roddy grunted. “Ready?”

“Yes,” Dexter said weakly.

It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to be anywhere, but here least of all.

He opened the gate.

His lungs seemed to shrink a little bit with each step to make room for the rest of his insides to vibrate violently.

He walked up the stairs.

And then on the doorjam he saw a Mezuzah. Wasn’t Ned Jewish? Was this his parent’s house? Dexter knew they lived around here and there weren’t that many Jewish families in the area.

He knocked on the door.

His heart pounded harder and harder with each of the three knocks. His lungs had now shriveled down to singularities. His skin crawled. They would open the door, know who he was, that he had switches routes with Ned the day that he’d died, know that it should have been Dexter walking on that street. And they might even forgive him, tell him there was no way he could know about the car, that it wasn’t his fault. Dexter could hear the creaking inside and knew it was going to happen any second.

“Aw there ain’t no one here,” Roddy grunted, shifting around on the wooden stairs that lead up to the door. “Let’s hit up the next one so I can get back to my route.”

And so they did, and two more after it, Dexter’s panic seeming to run in a loop. But no one was home at those houses either.

“These fucking early start times,” Roddy said. “I keep telling corporate no one’s home at three in the afternoon. People got jobs you know.”

“Right,” Dexter said.

Roddy shifted around from foot to foot and grimaced. “Look man, I’ll be frank with you. This evaluation BS is a waste of time. Crackheads can do this gig you know.”

“I do.”

“You barely even need to talk to these people to know what they’re gonna say half the time, just read their bumper stickers.” Roddy snorted. “Look point is, this was all supposed to be done yesterday and I gotta get back to my turf, which is the way the hell in the opposite direction. Ya understand?”

“Yeah.”

“So I’ll just mark down that I saw you and you did great and you’re a fucking model employee and a testament to the company training strategies and all that and you’ll buy me a beer on Friday. Deal?”

Dexter could feel the air scraping the dryness of his throat. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “You got your own work to do.”

“Right, right,” he said and hitched up and his pants again. “I’ll see you back at the van then.”

Dexter watched Roddy disappear around the corner and then slumped down on the curb.

The house across the street from him was plain, neither imposing or inviting. The people who lived in it were also probably plain. He couldn’t be sure of course, but he also couldn’t say which was better or worse.

He bit into his lip, knowing this would all go away if he’d just knock on their door. The panic would subside and he would remain gainfully employed. But now that the evaluation was past, he didn’t even have to bother. He could go back to filling in the cards, turning them in and collecting a paycheck without concern. Roddy and Jim were both right. A retarded crack-addicted crippled monkey could do this job. So long as the cards came in, no one cared. He should feel happy, relieved. He didn’t. Dexter wanted to cry except that he felt too angry.

Across the street a car pulled into the driveway and a man stepped out. He opened the trunk and began to unload several bags of groceries. He was exposed. He was vulnerable. The time was right.

Dexter stood up, dusted himself off, and threw his clipboard in the first trash can he saw. His apartment sucked as much as his landlord and he knew few people outside of work. He’d take the check due him on Friday and make his way to the coast. It didn’t matter what Ned was or wasn’t, Dexter was going to find a job on a boat.

© 2010 Josh Gross

“Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers” won the 2010 First Place Individual prize.