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“Whose Owl?” by The Colossus

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Whose Owl?

A Sheriff Walter Wheatley and Deputy Tuscadero Caper

by The Colossus

Charlie had 100 feet of rope, a wood plank, and a schedule to keep, when he pulled out of the driveway 25 minutes to midnight. He was going low tech, because he was that good.

In the cab with him, Neil and Donald were too excited. It made Charlie nervous. He wondered what he had been thinking, bringing them along.

“It’s a secret, what we’re doing,” Charlie said. “We’re straight up screwed if we get caught. You understand?”

“We can do it,” Neil said. He was an eager, though understated guy, who had seen a lot of mobster movies, and loved baseball. He could stand in one spot for literally hours, looking down, roughly at his right nipple. It was hard for Charlie to look at Neil straight on. It made him try to guess when was the last time Neil had brushed his teeth. Neil had filthy glasses, and his pants seemed to stay up only because they had accidentally snagged on a broken shirt button.

Donald was strong. All his crazy was bound up in his muscles, and he was always ready to go. He was 50 years old, and had been in institutions since he was fifteen, and tried to break through a brick wall, wearing nothing but pillows for padding.

They are on their meds. They are stable. Charlie thought.

“Breaking the law. Breaking the law.

Breaking the law. Breaking the law,” Neil and Donald were singing.

These clowns both know the same Judas Priest lyrics? Charlie asked himself. No shit.

“Shut up, guys,” Charlie pleaded.

“Breaking the law. Breaking the law.” They looked at each other, egging each other on.

“I’ll leave you by the side of the road,” Charlie threatened.

Then, he jerked the truck to a stop. Reached over them reluctantly–lice, opened their door, and started pushing them out of the truck into the dark with his feet. Donald fell out and Charlie hit the gas trying to shake Neil loose as Neil clung to the doorframe. Then he waited for Donald to climb back in. That quieted them down. They still giggled some, but quietly.

It took ten minutes to get off the sprawling campus of the Angelfields Farm for Mental Rest, where Charlie worked, and where Neil and Donald were on retreat. Once on the highway, it was another 20 minutes to the edge of town. To drive through town took less than one minute. Seconds, really. There were six businesses on either side of the road. The municipality timed the streetlight to go off at midnight. Charlie was in sight of the light when it went out. Perfect timing.

Charlie didn’t know what the businesses were. They didn’t have anything he was in the market for. He came into town one time before. That was to make plans for what they were about to do. His buddy had flown him over in a Cessna coming out of Newark. Charlie had seen it all from above, the town, the farm. They only got one shot. It was all or nothing.

Charlie was not living in the boondocks; he was doing this job, caretaking the farm. He looked after the chickens. Took care of the llamas and alpacas. Fixed things in the chalet where the dorms and rec room were. He took care of the garden in between the members coming up. Talked big about how he’d shoot up the deer if he caught them. “I’ll be eating venison,” he boasted.

Angelfields was an extension of the Clubhouse for Psychosocial Rehabilitation in Philadelphia. “Members” would visit the farm periodically. The members’ disposition was supposed to be helped by farming activities. They traveled with social workers. The social workers said, “Let’s go pull some weeds. Now, won’t that be fun?” It was like herding cats. The members wandered and circled and ended up back in the rec room watching videos on the television. The social workers pulled weeds. Some of them did. Social workers lasted maybe three years. Tops. Charlie’d seen a lot of them come and go.

The girl social workers liked Charlie. What else was there to do a hundred and fifty miles from the city? If he liked the girls, he helped them some, looking after the morons, the human refuse. Charlie felt for them. These were the lucky ones, the ones that got caught in the last net before oblivion. Most of them had no family, nothing.

When the loonies left, he could do whatever he wanted, play cowboy. He sheared alpaca. Patrolled for deer with his gun. Split wood. Drove around the farm.

In the truck, Donald got his transistor radio out. It was taped round and round with masking tape. At the farm there was nothing but static. He’d listen anyway, sometimes rocking back and forth in the doorway between the rec room and the bathroom. Everybody was afraid to ask him to move, and some of them pissed themselves; the alternative being the outhouse. It had spiders. Members are often anxious people.

Charlie was not afraid of Donald.

“Turn it off, Donald,” Charlie said. “Quiet.”

Donald grunted.

A mile before the location, Charlie cut the engine and glided silently into the hiding place in the bramble.

“I’ll kill you guys. Don’t make a sound. I mean it,” Charlie said.

Neil and Donald carried the plank. Charlie threw the rope over his shoulder. They walked up the highway, the pavement guiding their steps. In twenty minutes their eyes had adjusted to the dark, and they reached the turnoff. They stepped into the tram tracks, leaving no footprints. They came out the same way.

Everything was timed, choreographed like a ballet. 45 minutes before sunrise, they were back in the truck, then gone.

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

The sound of the phone surprised Darlene.  “Why does that have to be so loud?” she asked herself.

That particular phone hadn’t rung in quite some time. Not since the squirrels had nested in the Nordwell’s chimney–that time they went on vacation. Chester Nordwell called and said there were hooligans on his premises. But it was just squirrels. The sheriff had been very disappointed. It had been so long since he had done anything but a traffic stop.

“Sheriff’s Department,” Darlene intoned with the seriousness of her station. A manicured finger with a press-on nail brushed a too frivolous hair off her cheek, and tucked it into place.

“Sheriff Walter Wheatley is not in.  Yes, sir…I see…” Darlene’s eyes opened wide.  “Really?…Yes.  I’m calling him…I am calling him right now…I can’t say that Harry.  I will make sure he knows it is urgent.  Please don’t yell at me.”

A case like this, experience told Darlene, would require a sheriff, and a deputy. She took a moment to put on a face before she made the call. She changed her everyday bra for her dressup. She winked at herself in the mirror, and pointed a flirtatious finger at her own reflection. She felt vindicated about spending $4 more for that bra.

“Sheriff, sir, this is Darlene. There has been a disturbance,” she said.  She stayed on the line when the sheriff called the deputy, and broke in on the call when it sounded like they would go directly to the crime scene.

“Sheriff, I am urging you to come over here for a briefing. I have not been able to share all the details of the call. I have some information that you might call confidential.” She said confidential quietly, pulling him to her through the phone. She knew the deputy would come with him.

“Darlene, I am confident that we can gather the relevant facts,” the sheriff said, and hung up.

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

“Stay inside, Gunderson. This is police work,” the Sheriff shouted to Harry Gunderson. Gunderson had been about to step off the porch to meet the sheriff and his perplexing, foreigner deputy.

“Walter, I’ve been walking out there all morning. It is not dangerous. It’s infuriating. I want to nail the sons of bitches that did this to the lamppost as a warning. Hang ‘em high.” Harry said.

“You think maybe some of the kids got up in here last night?” the sheriff asked Gunderson, without wanting an answer, or even listening for one.

“Don’t try telling me this is teenagers doing doughnuts. That is pure crap, Walter. Don’t you think I would have heard that? I sleep about as sound as a high strung llama. This here is organized crime,” Gunderson said.

For once Tuscadero was in agreement with the codger.  Where they diverged was probably on the definition of “organized crime”.

“Now, now, Harry.  Let the professionals make that determination,” the Sheriff said. “At this time, all we can say is that it may be organized crime.”

“So, tell me then, Sherlock, if it’s not organized, then how did they know?” Gunderson asked.

“Know what?” the sheriff said.

“They’ve been spying on me. It’s systematic psychological… what do you call that… it’s where they make you think you’re going insane, and then, you go insane. It’s that.”

“What are you talking about Gunderson? Understandably, you are upset about your cornfields. Rightly so. And we are going to figure this out. You know we will. But this talk about psychological, well… it kind of sounds…” The sheriff shook his head.

Gunderson couldn’t take anymore. He stormed inside. Grinding his teeth, he climbed the stairs and eventually emerged on the widow’s walk along the roof. Looking down on the crime scene, he couldn’t help yelling, “How the hell did they know about the owls?”

“Captain Fart Stain and Toto are not going to be able to figure this out,” Gunderson mumbled to himself. “I’m calling the damn FBI.”

He wasn’t calling the FBI. He was missing his wife Odetta. Odetta was on the road. She got herself one of those pink cadillacs selling Mary Kay Cosmetics. She did a lot of road trips, and Harry had suspicions that it wasn’t all business.

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

I am a criminal,” Neil said to his “girlfriend” matter of factly, in his halting, guttural monotone. The same way he said absolutely everything.

“My name is Neil,” he reminded her, in exactly the same tone.

Neil’s girlfriend was crosseyed, had buck teeth, and scabs on her legs from bedbugs. Otherwise, she was cute, pixie-like.

“I’m not supposed to tell,” Neil said, in his halting monotone. “It’s a secret.”

“Last night.

Like a movie.

Charlie made us do it.

Charlie’s bad.

It’s a secret.

It’s a big, big, secret.

Don’t tell anyone,” he finished.

There were 20 members in the rec room at that very moment listening to Neil and nodding. Some of them got distracted by a chicken that came in the door clucking. The television was playing a videotape of On Golden Pond.

Suzie, the current social worker, heard Neil from the kitchen. She really didn’t care. Then, Donald came flying in.

“My radio. My radio. My radio. My radio. My radio.” Donald repeated over and over again. And Suzie wanted him to shut the hell up.

“I’ll kill ‘em. I’ll slit their damn throats. My radio.” Donald’s eyes were burning.

“When was the last time you saw it?” Suzie asked.

“Charlie took it,” Donald shrieked, rocking fast, forward and back from one foot to the other.

“Ah, Donald. Charlie wouldn’t take your radio,” Suzie reassured.

She left the chalet and walked across the parking lot to Charlie’s house. Half an hour later she was sitting on the edge of his bed barefoot. She was looking at his art, which was hanging on every wall. The drawings were in various states of completion. They were in various states of decay. None of them were framed.

“I’m going to frame them for you,” Suzie said.

Charlie was in bed smoking a cigarette. He was that guy who seemed to be able to live without food. His body got all its nourishment from tobacco, morning mud, and booze.

“No honey. I’m in a different place. They’re my sand paintings. I’m a monk.”

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

Sheriff Walter Wheatley was sitting in a rocking chair on Gunderson’s porch, staring out at the cornfield.  Tuscadero stood, ramrod straight, sipping a cup of cowboy coffee from a mug emblazoned with the words ‘Farmers do it in the Field’.

“So, any thoughts deputy?” the sheriff asked.

“Not really,” Tuscadero said.  He assumed that the sheriff meant a thought other than, ‘wow nice work kids.’

The owl crop circle was large.  Tuscadero was certain it had taken a great deal of planning to execute.  Not to mention the fact that it had been accomplished in such a short period of time.  The best view of the mischief maker’s handiwork was from the widow’s walk on the roof.

The second the sheriff and Tuscadero had stepped out on that walk and looked out at the cornfields, they had 2 large, round eyes looking right back at them.

“Nothing?”

Tuscadero sighed.  “I’m stumped.”  He wasn’t really, but no sense in ruining it for everyone.  He surveyed the cornfield with an impassive look.

His calm demeanor in the wake of such nonsensical violence irritated the Sheriff.

“Sweet fancy Moses Tuscadero, why do I bring you along?  You are more useless than a jackrabbit with an animal trainer.” he said.  Pounding the rubber tip of his cane down.

“I wouldn’t know about that sir,” Tuscadero said.

“Of course you wouldn’t.  You city folk don’t know hide nor tail of common sense,” he said rising to his feet.

He walked to the steps and then stared at Tuscadero.  He finally threw a hand up.  “Well at least help me to my truck.”

“Yes sir.”

At the last porch step, the lumbering old man lost his footing.  “Bullfrogs and barn swallows,” he bellowed.

Tuscadero caught him and helped steady him before he fell.  The Sheriff smoothed his chambray shirt.  “I’ll meet you at the station,” he said, and stalked to his truck.

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

“Now what this reminds me of is that time…” the sheriff drifted off. Lost in thought.

Tuscadero stared at him. This could not possibly remind the old man of anything. “What time?”

“How am I supposed to deduce what happened in that field, and make parallel realizations, with your constant yammering?” the sheriff thumped his cane on the wood floor for effect.

Tuscadero took his hat off and placed it on his desk. Inwardly he smiled. Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes had been some of his favorites too.

When he was 12.

“As I was saying, this reminds me of that time those hippie hoodlums destroyed Earl Bradley’s International.”

Ahh yes, there it was, as Tuscadero had expected. The inevitable linking of an owl shaped crop circle to a decade old vandalism case.

“They marked up the tractor some, if I’m familiar with the case. I guess I see the similarity,” Tuscadero said.  He did not see the similarity. Other than the fact that it was mild vandalism.  Every little thing in that town that happened was reminiscent to the sheriff of that fateful day.

The day that Earl Bradley’s shiny candy apple red, 1962 B414 International Harvester, tractor had a very crude drawing spray-painted on it.

“Damn hippies,” the Sheriff mumbled.

“It was a naked…um… individual.  Yes?” Tuscadero said.  Holding back his laughter.

The sheriff nodded.  “Yes.  Disgusting what they did to that fine machine,” he said.  He threw a narrow-eyed glance at his deputy.  “I suppose that means nothing to you city folk.”

“On the contrary.  Respect of private property is an assertion against madness.”

“I think we should go talk to Earl.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“It’s the only lead we have.”

The deputy looked down.  He could not keep the grin off of his face.  The audacity of trying to link the two crimes was more than he could bear.

“I suppose you think this is pretty funny.”

“No sir.  A crime has been committed,” Tuscadero said tightening his jaw.

“You’re damn right,” the sheriff said with a thump of his cane.

As they walked down Main Street, the townsfolk were clearly restless.  There were whispers.  Tuscadero was used to them.  He still, even after 3 years, was only tolerated by the people in town.  This time, however, the whispers were not about him.

The deputy matched the leaning, hobbled pace of his boss.  The old man was stubborn as a closet door off the track, and there was no way he was letting go of his job.  Hobbled or not.  Which suited Tuscadero fine; he didn’t want to be the boss.

After 15 years of being a cop in Philly, he was done with excitement.  All he wanted to do was sit around handing out speeding tickets, be a judge at the pie bake off, and maybe fix a stop sign or two when they fell down. He had accomplished all but the pie bake off, but he remained ever hopeful.

The sheriff, well he was a different story.  He craved the excitement.

What was puzzling Tuscadero at the moment, was that the sheriff had not once asked ‘why.’  The whys were what drove Tuscadero mental.  He chased the why with every case he had.  Trying to come up with reasons why people did what they did.  The hurt, the pain, the destruction.  No answer to the question, ‘Why did you do this?’ was ever satisfying.

He couldn’t escape the question in the city.  So he fled from it, and wound up here.  Where nothing happens.  He felt the question creep into his mind.

Why would anyone make a crop circle here?

“Sheriff.  Sheriff,” called a tiny lady from down the street.

“Yes Mrs. Ainsworth,” the sheriff said with a wide smile.

“Sheriff, I heard that someone was,” she lowered her voice, “killing cows at the Gunderson place.  Should I bring Gertrude into the barn?”

The sheriff took her withered hand in his.  “No, no, darlin’.  There’s no need for any of that.”

“Should I get a new padlock for the barn?” she said excitedly.

“No.  That’s not necessary,” he reassured.

“Earl said he’d sell me one for 6 dollars.” She made a face.  As if the idea of a 6 dollar lock itself was rancid.  “Can you even imagine spending that for a padlock?” she said, directing her question at Tuscadero.

“No ma’am I can’t,” he replied.

“Now Evelyn, please don’t fret.  We’ve got the situation handled,” the sheriff said as he ambled on.

Once inside Earl’s Hardware, the sheriff took a deep breath.  Tuscadero was mildly concerned about the old man’s heart.  This was a lot of excitement for an 82 year old.

“Sheriff, what can I do you for?” Earl said.  “Is it about the Gunderson place?”

“Earl, for the safety of everyone involved, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” the sheriff said, straightening his back.  “Suffice to say it shares a lot of similarities to the incident not too long ago.”

Earl nodded gravely.  “The International.”

The Sheriff shot an ‘I-told-you-so’ look at Tuscadero.  “Yes.”

“Damn shame.” Earl shook his head and stared at the floor, grief stricken.

“Yes, yes it is.  Smartest tractor I ever did see.  Now you always suspected the Davis boys.”

Earl nodded vigorously.  “Yes.  My wife said,” he leaned in close to the sheriff, “they caught them defacing books at the library.”

“You don’t say,” Sheriff said, nodding.

“Unsavory drawings, if you follow my meaning.”

“Indeed,” the sheriff said.  Rubbing his chin, deep in thought.

“The boys said they were at the grove all night.  But I never believed them,” Earl said.

“Was there any evidence?” Tuscadero asked.

Four eyes shot to his.  He was not welcome in this exchange.  Tuscadero leaned against the counter and stared out the front window.  Didn’t bother him any.  The fact that he was the only person in about a 25 mile radius that had ever seen a real crime, let alone solved one, didn’t matter.

Sheriff straightened.  “I think we should pay Robbie Lee Davis a visit at the Wagon Wheel.”

Tuscadero nodded.  “A fine plan Sheriff.”

“Of course it is.” The sheriff grabbed his cane.  “You know, you keep that sass-mouth in check, and you just may learn a thing or two.”

“I look forward to it sir,” Tuscadero said.

“Earl.” the sheriff slightly nodded.

“Sheriff.”

Tuscadero had meant it.  He hoped he did learn something.  He admired the old man.  His energy, his persistence, his naive outlook on crime.  All of it.

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

The Wagon Wheel had been, at one time, an establishment that sold wheels for wagons, oddly enough. And now, it was in “transition.” It was closed.

The sheriff gestured for his deputy to handle the lesser business of knocking on the door, while he composed himself for the interrogation. He cleared his throat.

A youngster opened the door.

Tuscadero wondered how many kids the Davises had. He was guessing fourteen with this little one included.

“Young man, are your parents home?” the sheriff asked.

That little Davis fellow pushed the door open so hard it bounced back and slammed shut. His mama came and lead them through the storefront full of defunct wagon parts. They crossed over to the living quarters at the back of the store.

“Ma’am, do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” the sheriff asked.

“Well, it’s lunch time Sheriff. Why don’t you just sit down and we’ll talk over lunch.”

The sheriff sat awkwardly side saddle, and took a piece of fried chicken off a plate in the middle of the table. “This is just delicious, Carolyn.”

There was no chair for Tuscadero, nor was he offered chicken, so he stood at attention, and observed. Mother and children watched attentively as the sheriff got down to the bone.

“Is Robbie here?” the sheriff asked.

“Well, what on earth? Did he do something?” Carolyn said.

“Now, Carolyn. You know that he did,” the sheriff said.

“This can’t be about those books?”

“Indeed, it can.”

“Well, I think he’s out messing with the car.” She moved to the back door, pushed it open to an extensive scene of fallow fields. “Robbie,” she shouted, louder than you would have thought.

A young man sauntered in shirtless in blue jeans, with oil streaked across some noteworthy rectus abdominus muscles.

“Make yourself presentable,” his mother said.

He put on a shirt, but did not button it, and slouched at the table, not making eye contact with the sheriff. That book incident had made him the town’s bad boy. Oh how he loved that.

“Sheriff,” Robbie said, in begrudging acknowledgment of his presence.

Tuscadero straightened as an example to this young rebel of proper demeanor in the presence of the law.

Robbie swung his long bangs out of his eyes, revealing a laceration across his forehead.

“What’s that on your forehead, son?” Sheriff Wheatley was prematurely closing in on his suspect. “You didn’t get that last night, did you? On the Gunderson’s farm, maybe? Cutting corn perhaps? In the shape of an owl?” the sheriff said, in triumph.

“Maybe.” Robbie wished that he had. And he very much hoped that he was about to be arrested, adding to his reputation.

Tuscadero looked at Mrs. Davis, who was shaking her head.

“Well, I don’t know how he could have Sheriff. We were all here together last night, treating the ringworm. We wouldn’t want that to get spread around you know. Neighbors say such nasty things. We all slept with the medicine on us all night long. Robbie, too. We washed it off this morning.”

Tuscadero gave Mrs. Davis a reassuring look, which she missed, because she was looking at the sheriff.

Robbie wished he could die right then, on the spot.  He slunk out lower than an earthworm’s belly.

“Would it be alright, Mrs. Davis, if I left my card with you? That is my personal number. I’d like you to call me, if you have any additional memories about what happened last night,” the sheriff said.

“That woman is hiding something,” the sheriff told Tuscadero, as soon as they were in the privacy of their Blazer.

“I’m sure she is, sir.” Tuscadero replied. He was sure she wasn’t. He was sure that ringworm was about all there was to reveal.

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

“I think we should go back and see Earl.  I have some questions,” Tuscadero said, first thing the next morning.

Sheriff Walter Wheatley beamed.  “I’m so glad you’re finally getting with the program.  It’s about damn time.”

Tuscadero nodded solemnly.  “Yes sir.”

The two drove in silence to Earl’s Hardware.  Tuscadero drove, the sheriff dozing next to him.  It was a 5 minute ride, at best, but this was a lot of work for the old timer.  Typically the sheriff just sat in his chair sleeping, his basset hound Beauford, snoring at his side.

Tuscadero put the Blazer in park, and cleared his throat.  “Here,” he announced.

“Took you long enough,” the sheriff said, shaking his head.

“Yes sir.  There were a few cars at the intersection.” Tuscadero said getting out of the Blazer.  “Like all of the 4 cars in town, at once,” he muttered.

“What was that?” the sheriff asked, struggling to get out of the truck.

“I said it’s a busy day in town,” Tuscadero said.

“Of course it is, it’s Wednesday.” Sheriff Wheatley said with a thump of his cane.

Deputy Tuscadero held the door open for the sheriff.  This earned him a glare.  Tuscadero nodded, reminding himself that Sheriff Walter Wheatley was neither a lady, nor an old man.  At least not in the Sheriff’s way of thinking.

“Earl.”

“Sheriff Wheatley, Deputy Tuscadero,” Earl said, nodding slightly.

“The boy here, he has some questions for you,” Sheriff said.

“Of course, whatever you need,” Earl said.  To the sheriff.

Tuscadero reigned in his annoyance.  “Have you seen anything out of the ordinary the past few days?”

Earl pondered that for a moment.  Head tilted up to the ceiling.  “Now that you mention it, Gordy Smith came in here wanting a whole truck of chicken feed.”

The sheriff perked up.  “Now that is interesting.”

“How’s that?” Tuscadero said.

Earl shared an annoyed look with the sheriff.  “Gordy Smith doesn’t own any chickens.”

Sheriff nodded sagely.  As far as he was concerned they had their next lead.

“I was thinking more like, unusual like… maybe someone buying a large quantity of rope, or maybe some wood planking,” Tuscadero said.

The Sheriff harrumphed.

“Now what in the blazes would be unusual about that?” Earl muttered.

“Earl, you’ve been mighty helpful,” Sheriff said, taking Tuscadero by the arm.

Once out in the street, the sheriff looked up at Tuscadero.  “You’re in the country now, son.  People buying rope and wood at a hardware store is about as unusual as ladies flashing bloomers at a square dance.”

Tuscadero nodded.

“Chicken feed for a chicken-less farmer, however, is as unusual…” The Sheriff tapped his cane on the pavement, pausing for effect.  “As someone buying a truck full of chicken feed when they don’t have chickens,” he said loud and slow.

“Got it,” Tuscadero said staring into the street.  He knew if he looked at the old man’s scrunched up face and mannerisms, he would lose it completely.

“To the Smith farm,” the sheriff said, pointing his cane towards the truck.

“Yes sir,” Tuscadero said.

He let the older man walk ahead of him, so he could chuckle quietly in private.

The sheriff showed restraint, and did not use the siren on the way to the Smith place. He did drive fast, though. The sheriff’s cataracts being considerable, Tuscadero did at times feel some concern for his own safety.

The first thing they both noticed as they approached the farm was the chickens.

“Well played, Smith!”  Sheriff Wheatley said. “He outmaneuvered us, Tuscadero! You see? He got chickens! He had to, you see?” The sheriff was disappointed that Tuscadero could not make even the simplest observations about the criminal mind. He had often lamented the day that Tuscadero’s Grand Aunt–the wife of the local State Master of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry–had politely suggested that he needed a deputy.

Gordy Smith was walking in their direction.

“Hold it right there,” the sheriff commanded. Smith stopped, and Tuscadero circled around the Blazer, but stopped short of opening the sheriff’s door this time.

“It’s a pleasure to see you Sheriff,” Smith said, chickens clucking his feet. “The Mrs. and I have been hearing strange news about the Gunderson’s silo. We heard a family of owls nested in there and ruined three years of grain. How’d they get in there?”

“We will be asking the questions, Smith. Since you seem to know so much about Gunderson and owls, would you like to tell us any more on that subject?” the sheriff asked.

“Sheriff, I don’t know anything that the whole town doesn’t know. All I know is, one summer night an owl flew in the driver side window of his Lincoln, and scared him so bad he drove over his wife’s dahlias. She chased Harry out, and he had to sleep outside. He couldn’t get near that Lincoln.  The owl was nested in, but good,” Gordy paused.

“Remember, he tried to sell the Lincoln, owl and all, to Pete. Harry always did think that owl was taunting him,” Gordy said.

“I am not an imbecile, of course I remember.  Are you being coy with me, Smith?” The sheriff believed he sounded like Lionel Barrymore.

“No sir.”

“Good! I wouldn’t advise it,” the sheriff said. “What’s the business with all the chicken feed?”

Smith was struck dumb by the question. All he could do was look around him at the chickens.

Tuscadero felt the sheriff needed a nudge, and he thought he saw his chance.   “Sheriff, may I?”

“Help yourself,” the sheriff said.

“We know you’ve been making deliveries for Earl Bradley.  Can you tell us about your most recent deliveries?” Tuscadero asked.

“The only recent thing, was I took a load full of rope and plank up to Angelfields,” Smith said.

Tuscadero waited for the effect.

“Rope and a plank. What did I tell you, Tuscadero? It’s as normal as blueberry pie,” the sheriff said to his deputy.

“Who did you deliver those to?” Tuscadero asked Smith.

“Charlie,” Smith said.

The sheriff waved Tuscadero back to the Blazer. Nevertheless,Tuscadero could see the sheriff was introspective as they got back into the truck.

The sheriff ground the dirt driveway back to the pavement. Then, “Hold on Tuscadero. There’s something you didn’t think of.” There was no restraint. The light blazed, the siren screamed, and the sheriff sped toward Angelfields Farm.

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

The sheriff and his deputy would have burned rubber peeling into the Angelfields parking lot, if it hadn’t been a dirt road. Instead, there was just a lot of dust.

The flashing light got the attention of all the club members, and they circled the Blazer. It looked like the zombie apocalypse.

The sheriff pulled his gun before he got out of the Blazer, creating an awkward moment during which Tuscadero believed he would be shot. The deputy put a hand up to redirect the pistol, which the sheriff took personally. He made a face. Tuscadero smiled to himself. They got out of the Blazer.

“Which one of you characters is Charlie?” The sheriff asked, gun ready.

Silence.

Suzie was watching from the kitchen window. The silence lasted long enough for Suzie to think the members were going to protect Charlie.  Stand up to the law. It was exciting.

“Charlie lives there,” Donald yelled, pointing. “He took my radio. I want my radio. Radio. My radio. He took my radio. Radio. I want my radio. I hate cops.” Donald did hate cops. He glared. He made a chopping gesture with his arms. He might have been thinking kung fu. It was hard to be sure.

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

“Alright.  I’m ready to question this hoodlum.  Where did you put the criminal?” the sheriff asked puffing out his chest.

“In the supply closet,” Tuscadero said, leaning against his desk.

The sheriff nodded in approval.  “Nice and cozy.  Cozy throws the guilty off balance.”

Tuscadero nodded as if this was sage information.

The old man threw open the door of the supply closet with a big sweeping motion of his arms.

“So…Charlie, is it?” Sheriff Walter Wheatley said clearing his throat.  He flipped through some random pieces of paper he had brought in with him.

“Yeah.”

“What brings you into town?”

“I work at the Angelfields Farm.”

The sheriff nodded as if that was very important information.  “Do you do a lot of gardening there?”

Charlie tilted his head upwards slightly.  “Not so much.”

“Really?  I would think that kind of job would need you to be well versed in crop maintenance.”

Charlie shook his head.  “Not really.  I’m more of an animal guy.”

Sheriff Walter Wheatley nodded thoughtfully.  He had this crook right where he wanted him.  “Like owls?” he asked innocently.

Charlie’s expression didn’t change.  “We don’t keep any owls on the farm.”

The sheriff leaned forward.  “Are you sure?  No big, giant owls you’ve been tending to over there at Angelfields?”

“Not that I’m aware of.  Alpacas, llamas, chickens, we used to have a cow.”

The old man was losing his patience.  “I’m talking about owls, boy.  Owls.”

Charlie said nothing.

The sheriff abruptly got up, and left the closet.

“Well?” Tuscadero said.

“He’s a tough nut to crack,” the sheriff said sighing.  “Maybe you should take a shot at him.”

Tuscadero put down his coffee.  “Are you sure?”

He nodded.  “Absolutely.  It’s about time you got your feet wet around here.  Now remember, lure him in by being friendly, and then when he’s at ease, you get him to confess.”

“Yes sir.  I’ll do my best,” Tuscadero said, hand on the door knob.

Charlie looked up as the new guy entered the closet and sat down.  They stared at each other for a few moments, sharing silence.

“Did you make the crop circle?” Tuscadero asked, placing Donald’s transistor radio on the desk with care.

“We made it,” Charlie confirmed. “Did you like it?”

“How did you do it?” Tuscadero said.

Charlie smiled remembering Donald’s energy set full in motion, running like hell wherever Charlie directed, breaking cornstalks with that big rope. Neil was the anchor and Donald ran. They laid down the plank and Neil stood on it. Again and again. The lunatics under the new moon, smiling and proud. Madman as medium, Charlie thought.

“Just a little elbow grease.” Charlie said nonchalantly.

Tuscadero nodded.  “Did you have any knowledge of Gunderson’s feelings about owls?”

“No.  Does he like them?” Charlie’s voice went up at the end. Curious.

“Not especially.” Tuscadero said leaving the closet.

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

“Open and shut.  Excellent work deputy.  You’ll make a fine sheriff one day,” Sheriff Wheatley said smiling.  “The way you tricked him into just giving it up.  That was a thing of genius.”

Tuscadero felt proud.  Although he didn’t know why.  It wasn’t difficult or crafty what he did.  Charlie had wanted to tell him.

The sheriff walked over to a small sideboard where there was a box of doughnuts.  He struggled to get the lid open.  He threw down his cane.  “Great Ceasar,” he slammed a fist onto the table.  “Darlene.  Darlene,” he shouted.  “I’m not trying to break into a damn bank vault here.”

“Don’t eat those.” Tuscadero said before he could stop himself.

The old man whirled on him.  “That’s sweet, are you worried about my cholesterol?  Christ almighty man, I’m 82.  If I want a doughnut I’m going to eat it.” he turned back to the table.  “If I can get into.  The stupid.  No good.  Horse huckey.  Box,” he said, continuing to tear at the box.  “Darlene.” he boomed again.

“Hold your horses old man.” Darlene said, snapping her gum.

“Put a lid on it Darlene, and open this box.  You know you could’ve opened this earlier.  It’s not as if this happens every single seed spittin’ time.”

Darlene put a hand on her hip, slipped a press-on nail under the flap, and in one smooth motion, opened the box.

“There.  Are we all warm and fuzzy now?” she said, turning to leave.  Not waiting to hear the answer.

“That woman could drive even the great Harry S. Truman to the booby hatch,”  the sheriff said plucking a powdered doughnut from the box.

Sheriff Walter Wheatley walked to his desk.  Just a little slower than he had been the past few days.  He sat down in his chair with a thud and sighed.

It took him several moments to realize that Tuscadero was staring at him.  Waiting patiently.

“Something on your mind?” Sheriff said.

Tuscadero sat down across from him.  “Is that it sir?”

Sheriff laughed.  “What else do you want?  Enjoy your triumph.  Justice will be served.  The violent hoodlum has been caught.”

“Yes sir.”

“You want more than that?”

“Well, I was just thinking…doesn’t it bother you?”

He leaned back in his chair.  “Doesn’t what bother me?”

Tuscadero sighed, impatience creeping in.  “Don’t you want to know why?”

The sheriff scratched stubble on his chin and smiled slightly.  “And what would come from that?”

Tuscadero was puzzled by the question.  “Sir?”

“What could possibly be gained from knowing why?  It’s a fools errand, Roger,” he said.

The sheriff’s use of Tuscadero’s first name, which he never used, zeroed the deputy’s focus.

“The how is a much more helpful question.  Why, well that sticky wicket, that will drive you to madness.” He leaned forward towards Tuscadero.  “Folks are quirky, troubled, amazing animals.  No sense in trying to figure out the nonsensical.”

Sheriff picked up the Gazette.  “Now enjoy your triumph.  Tomorrow I believe Mrs. Ainsworth needs help getting those rogue cattle, from Louis Tinsley’s farm, out of her back 40.  You’ll supervise.”

***********

The next day Deputy Tuscadero stood in the middle of a field, supervising the removal of the “rogue” cattle.  Meaning he was standing around, watching rugged men do work, and wiping sweat from his forehead.

Mrs. Ainsworth appeared  from behind him and smiled.  Tuscadero was taken aback.  “Good afternoon Deputy Tuscadero.  I’m so grateful for your help,” she said handing him a glass of iced tea.  “It’s hard work out here, I thought you’d enjoy some refreshment.”

“Thank you ma’am.  I appreciate it,” he said bewildered by the friendliness.

Mrs. Ainsworth patted his forearm.  “Wasn’t any trouble at all, and please call me Evelyn.”

“Yes ma’am,” Tuscadero said, knowing that while it was a friendly gesture, politeness dictated he call her ma’am.

“There’s talk all over town about how you stopped that awful criminal from killing more cows,” Mrs. Ainsworth said.  She leaned into him slightly.  “I just knew my Gertrude would be next,” she whispered.

“Well it’s my duty ma’am,” he said.  There was no point in correcting her.  She would forget the truth of the situation almost as soon as it left his mouth.

“As a thank you, we’d love to have you judge our pie contest.  When I called Nelda Swanson, and told her about your bravery, she insisted that you judge.  You do know about our local chapter of the League of Lady Quilters?”

“Yes ma’am I do.  High quality work you ladies do.”

Tuscadero wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw Mrs. Ainsworth blush.

“Well,” she began shaking off what she was certain was flirtatious flattery,  “we also don’t take no for an answer.”

Tuscadero straightened.  “I would be honored.”

Mrs. Ainsworth smiled.  “Now you get on outta here.  You’ve earned a break.”

“I really should wait until they’re done,” he said hesitating.

“We’ll be fine.  You scoot now,” she said, slapping his arm.

“Yes ma’am.”

As Deputy Roger Tuscadero wandered away from the cattle and to his truck, a broad grin spread across his face.

On his lips only one solitary word.  “Pie.”

© 2013 Jennifer Rose, Laura Bromley

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“The Gift” by The Magnificent Three

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

The Gift

By The Magnificent Three

At her parent’s insistence, Natasha’s first apartment was in the nicer part of town. She obliged since they were paying the rent. If she stayed in college full time, they would foot all her bills. Natasha found places around the apartment for all her treasured things. Her turntable and record collection sat prominently in the living room near the sofa. She alphabetized her books by author in the new bookcase against the entryway wall. She arranged souvenirs from her recent summer trip through Europe on the coffee table. The tarot cards rested on her bedside table. Natasha was teaching herself how to read tarot and liked to spread the full deck of cards on her bed, quizzing herself on the representations of each card.

After a month of living on her own for the first time, Natasha felt lonely. She shuffled her tarot cards and asked, “Who will I meet? Who will I meet?” Natasha pulled three cards from the top of the deck, revealing the King of Cups, the Chariot and the Moon. She stared at the illustration on each card, focusing her mental energy and waiting for some type of mystical signal. Her gaze kept returning to the depiction of the moon with two dogs howling below her.

A few days later, she brought Tom home from the humane shelter. Tom was a three-year-old orange tabby and just the kind of four-legged companion Natasha had hoped for. Natasha picked him up and carried him through the apartment, introducing him to each room. Tom seemed starved for human attention. He even turned his head to look Natasha in the eye when she spoke to him. Tom followed her around the apartment, finding places nearby to sit and watch her.

One afternoon, Natasha started craving something sweet in the middle of her English 101 class. She stopped to pick up a chocolate cupcake from the chic new bakery on the way home. Tom brushed against her legs as soon as she closed the apartment door behind her. She scratched Tom behind his ears and made her way to the kitchen. She opened the little square box and was about to bite into her treat when her cell phone rang. She went back to her bedroom and chatted with her mother for a long time. As soon as she hung up, she went back to the waiting cupcake and began pulling at its foil wrapper.

“Don’t eat that!” Natasha heard a voice behind her. She set down the cupcake on the kitchen counter and turned around, not sure who she expected to see. Tom met her gaze from his perch next to the microwave.

“Don’t eat that!” she heard again. Although the voice wasn’t coming from Tom’s throat, she sensed he was telling her with his thoughts. But that was impossible. She massaged her head above her right ear, her temples suddenly throbbing. Tom twitched his tail, the picture of an indifferent silent cat. Natasha leaned into the kitchen counter and closed her eyes against another intense pulse of pain. “Why?” she thought to herself.

“Because I saw a fly land on the frosting and I’m pretty sure it laid an egg,” Tom answered. Natasha looked up into Tom’s golden eyes, eyes she’d once thought of as yellow but now they seemed to glow like some far off beacon. “Oh, you didn’t mean why not eat the cupcake,” Tom thought at Natasha.

“This is too much,” Natasha said out loud, backing away from Tom and the kitchen. She stumbled down the hallway. “I’m not crazy, there are no talking cats. I just need to lie down,” she told herself as she braced herself with outstretched arms touching the walls. Tom sauntered down the hall, stopping just a few feet from where she stood.

“It hurts less if you don’t fight it,” Natasha heard Tom say in her thoughts again.

She tried taking long, calm yoga breaths but instead huffed haggardly. Tom moved to her side and knocked his head on her ankles. “I’m glad you can finally communicate with me. I heard from others at the shelter that some humans have the gift.”

Natasha sank to the floor. “I just wanted a cupcake,” she whined to herself.

#

Living with a cat that could hear her thoughts was not an easy adjustment. Tom was patient and stopped following her around the apartment but Natasha wanted answers, not more space and time to digest what had happened to her. She began wondering if she were the only one who could communicate with animals and what were some of the other powers people could have?

“I think I know somewhere we can go, somewhere that might have answers to your questions,” Tom popped into her thoughts one evening. Natasha sighed and looked down at Tom, curled up by her feet on the sofa. “Don’t ask how I know, just trust me. It’s a doughnut shop.”

Coming up to Sunshine Doughnuts, Natasha thought, “Tom, I think I’d rather eat that cupcake back home than anything they would dream up in this Crisco nightmare of a place.”

Tom ignored this comment from within the confines of his kitty carrier. “Find the owner. He’ll know what to do.” Natasha entered the empty shop. Doubtfully, she eyed the crusty old pastries under the grease-smudged windows. A hideous fly specked owl clock ticked away in the corner.

A monster of a man in a filthy apron loped from the back room. “Everyone loves the pork belly and tapioca pudding doughnuts. Four dollars apiece or three for fifteen.” He flicked what looked like a cockroach off the counter and started to reach for a doughnut with a square of waxed paper when Natasha finally spoke.

“What? I’m not spending four dollars for one disgusting doughnut. Tom told me this was a special place. Oh, never mind, I’m out of here.” She turned to leave.

The man asked, “Who’s Tom?”

Natasha kept walking but held up the carrier. “That’s Tom.” Tom yowled an affirmation from inside.

“Wait!” The man called out. “Hold on a minute.”

Natasha turned to glare at him. “Seriously?”

“So the cat told you about this place?” His voice was softer now.

“That’s what I said.”

“Well, that’s very different now.”

Natasha wasn’t sure how he did it but suddenly the man looked less slovenly, less frightening and somehow smarter. He bowed his head towards her and said, “Welcome to Sunshine Doughnuts. I am Lazlo. If you’ll follow me.” He stopped briefly to place a rubber cockroach back on the counter and then led them through a beaded curtain behind the counter. They passed through a storeroom and came to another door at the end of the room. Lazlo knocked twice and let himself in.

Natasha’s eyes widened. There was another doughnut shop in front of her. This one was as wonderful as its counterpart was depressing. It had bright red walls and a black and white checkered floor. There was a pastry counter filled with delicious looking doughnuts, croissants and pastries. An elaborate brass espresso machine steamed cheerfully behind the counter. Groupings of comfy chairs surrounded an old potbellied stove and there were several marble-top tables with little striped seats on either side. Dangling crystal globes above gave off a warm light.

Even more astonishing were the customers. A woman with a sleek bob and beaded dress was talking to what looked like a Mexican wrestler complete with a mask. A Goth girl who was a dead ringer for Morticia Addams was giggling with a professorial old man in a tweed coat. A tiny blond child who looked about nine was expertly pouring himself a shot of whiskey out of a flask. Lazlo took off his apron and flipped it around, revealing an immaculate white side. “Now before we get started can I get you a nice Bavarian cream, a cruller, or maybe a coffee?”

“Didn’t I tell you?” purred Tom into Natasha’s mind.

“This is, um, amazing.” Natasha tried to keep the stammer out of her voice, “What is this place?”

Lazlo shrugged. “Oh, one part coffeehouse, one part bazaar. A way station for people with certain talents, a place to find things you might not otherwise be able to acquire.” He indicated a large chalkboard on the wall next to the counter. There were a variety of specialty coffees and sweets listed at the top. Underneath that seemed to be a series of notes written in several different hands.

Flea Circus for sale to responsible party. Tent, trampoline and trapeze included.

2,000 OBO. My loss is your gain. Contact Bob347@gmail.com

Missing that special someone? I see dead people.

Reasonable rates. (503) 246-7925. Please call before 8PM

There were several more notices, some in languages Natasha didn’t recognize. Lazlo disappeared behind the counter and began pulling cups down and filling the espresso machine.

“Natasha, get me out of this box,” Tom commanded. Natasha fumbled with the latch and eventually managed to free the cat. Tom hopped out and with a swish of his tail led her to a table in the corner where he seated himself on one of the striped chairs.

“Just a little milk for me,” Tom said. Natasha passed along his request. Lazlo nodded and pulled a saucer from a stack near the cups. He filled it with milk from an old fashioned glass bottle. He filled two tiny cups with rich, dark espresso before setting it all on a tray. He added a plate of biscotti and a petite pitcher of cream.

Lazlo joined her at the table. “So, you know my name. You are Miss…? Ms.?”

“Natasha. Just Natasha is fine.” Natasha stuck out her hand which was enveloped by Lazlo’s giant paw. He gave her small hand a gentle shake.

He grinned at her. “I feel we are going to be great friends, Natasha.”

By the month’s end Natasha was a regular at Sunshine Doughnuts. When her classes were done for the day, she hurried home. After collecting Tom, she boarded the bus across town. Lazlo helped her understand her gifts and Tom helped her improve them. She loved meeting the other patrons and discovering their talents. She could think of no way to explain her new friends or abilities. Suddenly everyone she knew seemed like they were running at a lower wattage than her friends at Lazlo’s.

#

Natasha nibbled a cookie in Sunshine Doughnuts. Tom sprawled across the chair seat next to her. She stirred the foam of her latte as Tom arrived at the punch line of his joke. “That’s not a dog, that’s a salami!” Tom bent over to lick his back feet, still cracking up inside.

Natasha chuckled. “Good one, Tom. For a cat, you have a good sense of comic timing.”

“Please. As if humans invented everything. Having nine lives teaches you something about taking things less seriously.”

Lazlo approached the table with someone Natasha didn’t recognize. “I’d like you to meet my nephew, Yorgo. He runs a traveling show, much like the traveling circuses and vaudeville acts of long ago. He visits me every now and then, often looking for people with special talents for his show. Yorgo, this is Natasha.”

“Nice to meet you,” Natasha said, extending her hand. Yorgo grasped her fingers awkwardly. “Not socially graceful,” Natasha thought to herself.

“But handsome,” Tom interjected.

“Not now, Tom.” Natasha darted her eyes at the cat sitting across from her, licking his paw as if he didn’t hear her. She focused on Yorgo. “This is my cat, Tom. Maybe Lazlo has explained about us?”

Yorgo smoothed an errant lock of hair behind his ear.

“Me-ow!” Tom thought to Natasha.

Natasha avoided glancing at Tom as Yorgo pulled up a chair. Yorgo sat with his chest resting against the chair back, facing the duo at the table.

“Something to drink, Yorgo?” Lazlo asked.

“Dirty chai, please,” Yorgo answered. Lazlo disappeared behind the counter. “Yes, Lazlo mentioned that you can communicate with animals, telepathically.”

“I can, although Tom is the only animal I’ve carried on a conversation with. I can hear birds, squirrels, and dogs, but I haven’t tried to engage any of them.”

“Then my request might be difficult for you.” Yorgo ran his hands along the tops of his thighs, bringing Natasha’s attention to his neatly creased pinstripe slacks and matching vest.

Natasha felt the heat of arousal flush her cheeks. Before she could respond, Lazlo approached with Yorgo’s drink and silently set it down. Lazlo turned from the table without further interruption.

Natasha asked, “What is that anyway?”

“It’s a chai latte with a shot of espresso. Quite nice, if you’d like to try a sip.”

“No, thank you. This request of yours must involve communicating with an animal.”

“Yes, a sun bear to be exact.”

“What? No. I can’t risk reaching out to a wild animal.”

“He’s domesticated for the most part. You’d be helping me rescue an animal that’s only known a life of abuse in captivity.”

Natasha twisted her hair around her finger. “Your rescue sounds dangerous. What do you plan to do with this bear anyway?”

“The bear can’t survive in the wild. He’s spent too much of his life in captivity with humans who use cattle prods. I’d like to find a place for him in my show. I’m not sure the bear could hear your thoughts but I want to try.” He smiled warmly, cutting through Natasha’s skepticism. “First things first. I will take you to meet Salty.”

#

Natasha got out of the rickety Volkswagen van in a small grove of pine trees and followed Yorgo to a dilapidated circle of tents.

“This place looks shady. Gives me the creeps,” Natasha said.

Yorgo pressed his forefinger to his lips. “Shhh, keep your voice down. The show doesn’t begin for hours, we have some time. We’re going to sneak over to Salty’s cell. It’s in the red tent over on the right.” There was a portrait of a little sun bear on the side.

Natasha rushed off behind Yorgo as he darted from bush to bush, making his way towards Salty. When they reached the tent, they peered inside a small opening in the fabric. Inside was a sun bear, his fur matted and lusterless. The guard waved a long rod in front of the bear, who then cowered in a corner. Natasha started to stand up, but Yorgo firmly held her arm to keep her behind the fabric.

“Hard as this is to watch, don’t blow it now. Wait and try to clear your head. Can you hear his thoughts?” he whispered to her.

The guard stopped and looked around suspiciously. Natasha didn’t dare breathe. A moment later, a man in a shiny blue suit stuck his head in the tent. “Hey, what’s taking so long? Feed the bear already and go clean out the elephant’s cage.”

The guard dropped the electric prod. “Oh, uh, I’m almost done, boss. Be right there.”

The boss left. The guard dumped a can of dog food into a bowl and shoved it into the bear’s cage. The bear didn’t walk over to his bowl until the guard left.

Tears came to Natasha’s eyes as she gazed at the bear making its way dejectedly to his bowl. “Don’t worry, we’re going to get you out of his awful place,” Natasha thought to herself.

“Who the fuck just said that?” a voice growled in her head.

Natasha clapped her hand over her mouth. “I did!” she answered in her head.

“A girl’s voice. I don’t see no lady around here.”

Yorgo looked excitedly at Natasha. Natasha nodded at him. They carefully crawled through the opening and stood in front of Salty.

“Salty, don’t be afraid. My name is Natasha. This is Yorgo. We’re going to rescue you.”

The sun bear stared at Natasha a moment, and then began eating his food. “I don’t care what the fuck your names are if you got better grub than this place.”

#

Salty the Sun Bear sat on his back haunches, looking grumpy. He knew the closest thing to freedom would be his in a few minutes, but he still distrusted humans in the back of his mind. Natasha seemed to be different, it was true, but he would withhold hope until he was in the getaway car. His odious guard finally left the tent. It was exactly 9:50 at night and the guard was off to drink late happy hour Tecate tall boys at the dive bar down the road. Salty attempted to hide his pleasure at seeing Natasha and Yorgo come into his view. He snorted and stuck out his ludicrously long tongue at his rescuers. Natasha smiled at him. She knew that underneath his prickly, sarcastic demeanor, Salty was feeling something akin to joy at the moment.

The rescue itself was simple. Yorgo took the ring of keys from the desk. “Salty says it’s the middle key,” Natasha told him. As soon as they had opened the metal door, Salty dropped to all fours and sashayed out of his cell. Yorgo and Natasha quickly ran ahead of him to the van and opened the back door.

“He’s surprisingly adorable,” Yorgo said.

Salty grunted. Natasha heard Salty’s gravelly voice in her head. “Adorable my ass! There had better be tater tots in the car or I’ll claw his face off!”

Yorgo looked to Natasha. “What is he thinking right now?” he asked.

Natasha looked away. “Oh, um, he’s thinking about how he wants a nap, and some-uh- tater tots.” she said. Natasha wouldn’t be able to hide Salty’s true sentiments from Yorgo for much longer.

“I thought sun bears were supposed to eat honey and bugs,” Yorgo commented as he started the van. The bear clamored for food in Natasha’s head until she finally gave in and asked Yorgo to make a pit stop at a road-side tavern. Soon, Salty was bent over his deep-fried potatoes.

Salty’s inner monologue continued as he licked his dangerous claws with his comically long tongue. “What does that guy want from me? You think those nincompoops who imprisoned me were into proper animal nutrition? I ate carny food and freakin’ Alpo, genius. You know what would go well with this? A nice IPA.”

Natasha took in Salty’s rant. She turned to Yorgo and shrugged. “He never developed a taste for termites.”

In the following week, as Yorgo made repairs and modifications on his trailers and cages, readying them for the tour, Natasha spent all her time with Salty. She knew under his thorny exterior was an abused, misunderstood animal. Luckily for both of them, he was a quick learner when it came to memorizing his act and cues.

Over that week, Natasha also learned more about Yorgo. Under his slightly stiff exterior lay a wicked sense of humor. The first few times it made an appearance she hadn’t been sure if he was joking or not. Part of her worried about skipping her classes but she couldn’t stay away from the gang at Lazlo’s. When she wasn’t at Sunshine Doughnuts, she was out back helping Yorgo with the animals or doing something to help him get back on the road. One day, Yorgo painted the caravan. It was a beautiful apple red with little shutters and wooden fretwork all over. “Yorgo’s Traveling Wondershow,” was emblazoned on the side.

He turned to look at her. “You know we could add your name here, too.”

Natasha stared at him, truly confused “My name?”

Yorgo set the brush down, sat on the steps of the caravan and patted the space next to him. She joined him. Yorgo looked more serious than she’d seen him in days. “Natasha, you could bring a whole new life to this show. You could see the world and learn so much more about your gifts. You are wasted in this town. They will never understand someone like you.”

Natasha pictured her name alongside Yorgo’s for a moment. She couldn’t help thinking about life on the road. She shook her head as if trying to dispel the images. “Oh, Yorgo, that’s very kind of you. But what on earth would I do? I’ve just started a whole new life here with school and Tom and my apartment. I have obligations to my family. Besides, the minute I leave school, I’ll be penniless.”

“Money,” Yorgo snorted. “There’s always money to be made if you want it. Think of the animals. You could help more like Salty. You could be more than an animal trainer, you could be an animal savior. You have a gift Natasha, don’t turn your back on it.”

He looked so sincere she couldn’t bring herself to turn him down flat. Natasha sighed deeply. “I’ll think about it.”

“Think quickly,” Yorgo replied. “We leave in three days.”

#

The next morning, Natasha woke up to silence. Normally, Tom hummed Yankee Doodle Dandy until she was fully awake. Then he licked his whiskers and asked politely for his can of breakfast tuna. Natasha couldn’t even hear Tom’s paws padding across the bedroom floor. Maybe he had climbed down the fire escape to indulge in a rare desire for hunting? Natasha’s stomach began to feel heavy as she finished getting dressed. Tom was still nowhere to be found or heard. “Tom, where are you?” she thought, trying to send out a distress call. She realized she hadn’t looked out the windows all morning, avoiding the view, as if the silence inside told her all she needed to know. She stepped carefully across the bare floor in her fuzzy socks. On the street below she saw a crumpled orange ball. Running down the stairs to the sidewalk outside, she knew Tom was already gone before she reached his body. She kneeled next to Tom. “Be okay, just be okay! I’ll get you to a vet, everything will be better,” she pleaded. She picked up Tom’s limp body, cold but not yet rigid. She held him curled in her lap, as if he were napping. His clouded eyes and the blood drying around his ear pulled Natasha out of her reverie.

#

Natasha pulled the curtains open and looked out the caravan window. If she saw one more cornfield she was going to scream. Yorgo said they’d take a rest stop in about an hour or the next town, whichever came first. Natasha didn’t like touring the Midwest. She looked forward to the cooler weather of the North. The animals would be much happier too. Natasha took out her tarot cards and began to lay them on the table in front of her. As she revealed the fifth card from the deck, she stopped. She held The Magician for a few seconds before she gathered the rest of the cards and put them back in the box. She smiled at the thought of an obscured future.

© 2013  Thea Constantine,  Stephanie Golisch,  Luna Nova

“The Tweaker’s Tenancy” by Dostoevsky’s Firing Squad

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

The Tweaker’s Tenancy

By Dostoevsky’s Firing Squad

You might say that people lived at the house on 52nd Avenue. They watched TV, they smoked, they ate meals from 7-11. They were trained to the darkness. If the people of the house on 52nd Avenue went out in the day, they received glares, indifference, were overwhelmed by the pace of the day. Leaving the house meant leaving two shaky and incontinent Chihuahuas. The Chihuahuas couldn’t use the backyard, which was a field of invasive ivy that would bury them alive. The front yard was against a commuter street, so if the dogs were able to hobble or more likely fall down the steps, they could easily be ignored and crushed. Rescued from hobos, the dogs had been trained by hobos. They were used to being ignored and relieving themselves anywhere, even squatting on the living room rug.

Cheryl owned the house on 52nd Avenue. The two Chihuahuas were her compassionate tether to humanity. She needed the Chihuahuas to balance the darkness of the roommates she had taken since her husband died 10 years ago. Her roommates were her siblings. Her sister Cynthia was the alcoholic witch in the basement, folding clothes and smoking. When Cheryl’s husband died, her brother Jason moved in and took over tinkering with the tools in the basement. Later he moved the tools to his bedroom. He was a fan of the glue gun. Glued to his bedroom wall was a big book of Romio Shrestha as a shrine, bowls, and ornate metal jars. He glued a whole chest of drawers to the wall. He glued speakers to the wall, which buzzed when the stereo was off. Jason was also a fan of electrical wire, motherboards and old machines. Geiger counters and telephones were stripped, wires were used to make crack pipes of glass bulbs, tape and paper tubes. Cheryl said she didn’t care what her brother did, as long as he paid the rent. But she must have wondered why he took his door knob with him to work.

My wife and I met Jason the first time we were shown the house on 52nd Avenue by our realtor. The house was falling apart, ready to be set aflame by dangerously old connections, and the sewer to burst adding stench of human waste to human waste, Chihuahua waste and cigarettes. The roof was ready to collapse, both of the house and a structure that would be called the garage, except it no longer qualified due to erosion of one wall. The dust in the house never settled, the particles in continuous deflection, a squalid snow globe. Cheryl had no money. She owed taxes several years back. We took the bait and met the family. In most showings of homes, anybody living in the home will vacate. Cheryl, her siblings and her Chihuahuas did not leave.

Cheryl opened the door like a surprised but sedated rat. Our realtor explained we wanted to see the house. The flies on the porch came in with us, attracted to the smell of urine. Cheryl replaced herself in the threadbare chair facing the TV while the two Chihuahuas yapped and 60-year old Cynthia perched unstably on the radiator with a can of Molson Ice. My wife and the realtor talked between themselves while I entertained Cheryl and Cynthia. Cynthia was attracted to me because I didn’t discount her. She showed me all she bought at Goodwill for her sister. In her diseased mind, the $4 vase and $20 synthesizer, which remained unused, made up for not paying rent.

Jason was locked in the second bedroom. He was a strange clown at a circus. He was lying under a couch mounted on end tables. The top of the couch was missing cushions, instead set with steel loops threaded with leather rope. Under the couch, under Jason, was garbage. Empty boxes of Lemonheads, used tissues, unopened mail from the Department of Justice, bent business cards, neckties, wire clothes hangers, broken glass, nails, staples, empty paint cans, and other things including a jug of lighter fluid. Under the couch, Jason was concentrating on working a needle-and-thread onto a transistor motherboard, fantasizing that he would show it to a woman he knew at work. He alerted to a knock on his bedroom door, stopped and watched the door knob. Would they go away?

Huh? The police? How did child support find me?

 

Jason crawled out from under the couch, knees crunching glass. He riddled the door knob. He pulled the door open a crack toward his body. His forehead and eyes peeked around the side of the door, watching us.

Why is that man grinning at me? He can’t be official. Can I shut the door? I’m going to shut the door. I have to shut the door now. They might want to come in.

 

Jason shut the door. We saw only there was certainly a space behind the door, and it contained some oddness.

Against the advice of our realtor, we made an offer. The offer was quickly accepted and began the events that always happen when people adopt and become keepers of land and home. We looked past the black mold in the corner, the piss plumes, the matted and tarry dust from decades of smoke, cracks, stains and evidence of mice infestation. The mice probably had a more orderly life than the people in the house on 52nd Avenue. The mice had passages, sources of clean bedding, cat food that was continuously spilled on the floor and cabinets for private defecation. We never saw a cat, but there was a litter box. Maybe Cynthia was the cat who no one trained, “Don’t eat that.” The mice slept through the day and awoke at night, as did the people. When we had the house inspected, Jason was not home. He took the door knob with him.

Jason was a night owl. Owls are mysterious and scary as you don’t know when they will appear. The neighbor told of yelling at Jason one night for trying to shove a whole printer out his bedroom window. He must have finished stripping its wires. The dude I bought my first and last Harley from was knocked off his bike by an owl he had scared into flight while driving at night. He said the only thing that saved his ass was the thick leather wallet in his back pocket. I once attended a writing workshop in the middle of nowhere. I awoke city time 4 am and walked the blackness. I wrote and walked in the darkness, past cornfields and one night I stopped to ask what the sound of my writing resembled. I thought mouse scratching. I was fearful of cougars. As I looked up, I saw the winged expanse of an owl silently fly over top. He too thought I was a mouse.

By law, we were the owners of the house, and the land, but what is law? What is ownership? The day we were handed the keys, Cynthia met us on the porch, smoking cigarettes and drunk in a bikini, looking for an imaginary cat. Cheryl and the Chihuahuas were gone.

“We tried to move all our stuff,” she complained to me, then grew defiant, “I am not leaving without my cat.”

I promised Cynthia a phone call should the cat appear. She called the next day saying she saw the cat in the window, but we never saw a cat and never heard from her again. Cynthia had moved on.

Having the keys did not give full ownership or access to the house. Jason was not home, as his bedroom door knob was gone. He left his window cracked open. I moved a table from the porch to the side of the house, stood on it, and squeezed through the window. As my eyes adjusted to the dim of Jason’s room, I heard my wife from the other side of the bedroom door.

“Are you OK? What’s in there?”

I was stunned into silence. I listened, and looked around quickly. I was not certain I was alone. I pulled aside heavy blankets stapled to the window frame to let in light. I invented Jason sleeping or dead atop the makeshift bed of a couch that was only heaped with clothes. But the room was unoccupied. I could not open the door from the inside, and crawled back out the window.

The locksmith came. Jason had left everything in his room, as if he didn’t want to leave.

By rescuing this house we were rescuing ourselves. Rescued from failed marriages, boring jobs and mundane lives. The first thing I did was rip out and wrap up two layers of urine-soaked rug and carpet padding. I dragged the dead rugs down the front steps and into the yard, my forearms rubbed raw and saturated by their foul odor.

A few days later, someone smashed in a basement window. We had not yet moved anything in, so I didn’t inventory what might have been missing. My wife called the police. She noticed dirt on the floor and a screen removed from the crawl space. I thought it was Cynthia looking for her cat. The police identified the fingerprints as Jason’s.

Despite eight contractors and dozens of doughnuts hired to replace the plumbing, the electrical, the sewer, the roof, the garage, and finish floors, we worked for weeks scraping off lead-based paint, removing paneling and slowly becoming proficient at scraping, mudding, sanding and painting. The hundred-year old lath and plaster was unforgiving. We painted the interior shallot bulb green, tore out the toilet wall and installed a claw foot tub on top of tiny white and black tiles.

The second break-in was more disturbing. We had replaced the basement windows and added bars for protection. Jason simply kicked in rotted wood at the back door. In his old room, two foot holes fractured the lath and plaster and across the wall in chalk, “Where’s my coins?” In removing Jason’s belongings from the house, we had not found any coins except a couple of dollars in small change. Could that motivate him to break in? The police found Jason’s prints, but were unable to find Jason. Using the internet, I began my own search for Jason, plotting our confrontation.

After a month of our rescue, we had finished painting, and the last detail was blasting and repainting the old radiators. My wife was becoming familiar with the house, ready to forget the past. We had garbage service, ate at the neighborhood food carts and rode the bus that stopped outside our house.

Then one night we came home to find fire at our house. The firemen had arrived and told us we were lucky, we only lost the back porch. My wife thanked them, but I was silently seething they let the arsonist get away. Perhaps the three-foot trench I had dug to wire the garage to the house stopped the fire from spreading.

After the investigation found it to be arson, my wife abandoned me and the house to stay with her mother. Ownership of the house was no longer a legal battle. The police told me they found Jason in Seattle, but without proof, they could only get a restraining order. For me, it was about ownership. I was ready to reclaim the house. I was ready to extinguish Jason.

The break-ins and the fire had occurred days after Jason got paid his father’s social security income. I knew because I was still getting his mail including direct deposit slips. Each night after he got paid, I waited outside the dark house, watching late into the night for Jason to appear. Some nights, I sat in the backyard on a stump. When he came, I was waiting for him. This time he was carrying a can of gas. He did not hesitate to pour gas onto the side of my house. I did not hesitate to smash his head with a baseball bat. He dropped to his knees as if praying, and moaned, “Motherfucker…”

“What coins?” I asked him, heart pounding and braced to hit again.

“My dad’s coins,” he mumbled, “Cynthia hid them in the crawl space.”

The crawl space had been dug out for a new sewer line. Nobody had found any coins.

“There are no coins, you sold them for crack, you fucking tweaker,” I spat at the burglar, the trasher, the arsonist.

He stood and turned, his face sunken and when he spoke, all I could see were unclean teeth or spaces where unclean teeth had been. I saw the owner of the house, his craze daze.

“Where are my coins?” he asked.

I hit him hard. Sometimes ownership is by force, especially from tweakers. With my boot, I rolled him into the trench and filled it in. I hoped my wife would join me to search for coins in the crawl space.

© 2013 Kevin Nusser, Christa Helms

“Bucket Boys” by Team Wonderbra

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Bucket Boys

By Team Wonderbra

This was the third one.

Peter traced his fingertips over the symbol notched into the wooden sign post to verify it was real. The mark was simple – two “U”s side by side, encompassed in two circles; a Bucket Boy mark. Seeing it now shook Peter to his core. He felt Fitz’s presence inside the lines, half expecting to feel a pulse in the etching.

He couldn’t ignore a third one. It was the third one in six months.

The first time he saw it, Peter mistook it for a fluke. It could have been one of the many that Peter and Fitz carved together on the road. But Peter knew that Fitz had never been on this rail with him.

It was common for the hobos and tramps in the area to create monikers for themselves using the simple symbols developed by the migrant workers over the years to represent their hobo names. Most travelers couldn’t read, but they could leave signatures.

In the years following the Great Depression, hobo culture sprang to the forefront out of necessity. Both boys had been born into this society of the downtrodden, Peter’s mother dying when he was six. After that, Peter traveled with his father, a tie loader for the railroad company. Peter did odd jobs for his father’s crew and for the farmers that lived outside each town. He traveled with men much larger and hungrier than him, following the railroads in droves, searching for scarce employment and even more scarce food.

Peter only remembered a different life as a distant memory when his mother was still alive. Warm beds and hot soup seemed like a fading dream. He’d learned enough of the road rules from his father. He’d learned the codes and signs, but nothing he’d experienced fully prepared him to navigate the dangers of living tramp life. In addition to the gnawing hunger that seemed a constant companion, brutal railroad security Bulls were a constant threat.

He got lost in the tracing, closing his eyes tight. Peter remembered the first time he saw Fitz; the small boy had been in charge of water running to the fields for farmers. Peter paused his fruit picking and watched the tired boy struggle up the hill, his full buckets sloshing over his shoulders. The boy teetered and lost his balance, dropping both buckets and collapsing in defeat. The water welled up at his feet, mixing with his tears as it seeped into the ground.

“No sense in dehydrating yourself over spilled water. Get up, kid. I’ll show you a better way to carry these. Can’t let the rest of us die of thirst.”

The young boy raised his head, tears still spilling.

Peter softened, “Come on, Kid Simple. Ain’t got all day!”

Fitz met Peter with a grateful smile and followed him back to the well. He was Peter’s shadow from that day forward, and they became each other’s family.

They called themselves the Bucket Boys after their first year working as fruit tramps and begging at back doors. They’d pretend to be pirates and marauders to pass the time between their odd jobs. One morning, while riding the rail to the next town, Fitz pulled a coal piece from his pocket and drew two “U”s on the inside of the rail car.

“Bucket boys!” Fitz declared, as he circled the first U.

“We’re tramps now. Together forever,” he explained, as he drew another circle around the second U. He beamed at Peter and took his hand.

They were just boys then. When Peter’s father died, they quickly had to become men. Peter knew to find an old timer who would take them under his wing in one of the big jungle camps. King Junky Bat Man was eccentric, but his life as a traveler provided a wealth of survival education. He taught the boys the hobo codes and symbols left to help fellow travelers on poles, trees and gates along the rail line to find work, shelter, food and most importantly, avoid danger. A smiley face meant the farm up ahead would allow you to sleep in the barn. A circle with an X inside indicated there was food available. Two overlapping circles meant hobos would be arrested on site. Being fluent in hobo code enabled the boys to survive, and they began to feel at home on the rail. The orphans no longer felt alone; now they belonged.

It had been two years since Fitz went missing, and Peter hadn’t used the Bucket Boys sign since. It stood for Peter and Fitz, and now it was just Peter.

The night of the bull raid, they’d fallen asleep outside a farm camp, listening to the owls in the night. Fitz always fell asleep first. Peter liked it that way. Peter was drifting off when they heard the sound of the railroad Bulls stomping into the camps to clear out the travelers and prep the tracks for the next run of workers. Everyone scattered into the night, the sounds of screaming and gunshots echoing into the sky.

Fitz always circled back around and found Peter, but that night, he never came. When Fitz didn’t materialize after a few days, the other travelers declared Fitz dead. After that, searching was pointless; Peter had given up. Fitz wasn’t going to come back.

Now, standing in front of the Bucket Boys sign again, Peter allowed himself the luxury of hope. It was clear as day, written under the regular cross that meant, “church will give food.” Sometimes, it was written under an upside down Y, which mean “danger in this town.” It began to always accompany two rectangles, which meant, “afraid.” Looking back, Peter had realized he should have paid better attention to the surrounding monikers. Seeing a third sign meant Fitz was still alive – this realization washed over him in a wave of relief and joy and settled determination to find his dear friend.

The signs had become Peter’s new code. His map. He spent the summer picking strawberries in Bedford and followed his sign to Cooperstown during the apple season. It was fall now, and the only work to be made was a bucket or fire runner for another railroad. The fruits of summer were packed away, being sold to girls and boys with clean hair and hemmed clothes. He was tired. Carrying the buckets became harder this season. Peter had ignored the stories of where the work was and only followed his symbol. His belly ached and his legs became weak and tired. No matter how old or painted over his signal had been, it was a way to keep Fitz with him during his travels. He’d scratch an infinity symbol every time underneath. “Don’t give up.”

The markings were fading, as was his memory of Fitz. By the time he’d found them, fence markings had been painted over, grass had grown around the base of the tree where he’d last seen the carving. It had been too long. Maybe Fitz really was dead.

The infinity signs were harder to mark onto the wood. Fitz hadn’t left these signs for years. Peter was chasing a ghost at the expense of his own survival.

The last time he found it, Peter realized he had to travel back to Chadwick, right outside of where he had lost Fitz. “To find something you’ve lost, start where you last saw it,” his father once said. The easiest way was to take a cannonball, an express train that stopped in the larger cities to get medicines out to smaller towns by delivery truck. Cannonballs moved faster, but there was one every couple of days. Problem was, they were harder to hop. He knew the physical dangers of rail riding were just as prevalent as any Bull. It was common for hobos to fall under the wheels when attempting to hop the trains. If a guy was lucky, he’d lose a limb. Unsure footing meant he lost everything else.

He was consumed with the search. The long hours riding the trains gave him plenty of time to roll over the posibilies of Fitz’s wherabouts. He’d heard hobo folklore from the jungle cats about the fate of missing travelers for as long as he could recall. When he was younger, the tales of Bulls capturing young tramps and selling them at the ports to slave on ships and plantations terrified him. The road kids exchanged boogeyman stories about kids being disfigured and set on display in traveling sideshows. He remembers a particularly horrific interaction shouted at him by a old nutty lusher, “The Bull’s gonna get you street urchin, they gonna sell ya to the circus and the cats will eat yur bones!”

As he grew older, he’d dismissed the stories as old wives’ tales. He had enough real threats to worry about. He was still careful about taking food and drink from unknown jungle rats for fear of getting a lump laced with knock-out-drops. Travelers disappeared every day. Ever since the railroads had pumped up the security Bulls, life on the rails was significantly more dangerous. The older hobos spoke fondly of a time where no one bothered the travelers and they were even welcomed with open arms in farming towns. When the Bulls first were brought on by the Railroad companies, they would just round up travelers and jail them. That was before Peter’s time though. These days the Bulls seemed like more of a firing squad. The tough economic times only amplified the danger. Hunger can make people do things; bad things. Peter had even heard stories of starving boozehounds, their minds gone from Corn Bourbon, cannibalizing travelers. Now Peter revisited the boogeyman stories with a new horror.

It took only three days to get to Chadwick. After hopping off in Augusta, he

began the final walk into town, past miles of cornfields. Chadwick was the last place the Bucket Boys were together. He’d hoped to never return to this place. Losing Fitz had put a crack in his spirit…it was an emotional straw that had nearly broken his back. The knot in his stomach wasn’t from hunger alone — something about this place stood his hair on end. His senses were piqued as he scanned for hobo marks. The marks seemed ominous and he wanted to turn around, hop a train and never return. However, he was determined to find out Fitz’s whereabouts. The answer was here; he could feel it. He saw the mark for “unsafe place” directly over the sign for “man with gun”. He had to travel carefully. Less then a quarter of a mile down the road he saw more danger marks, one indicating that he should “be ready to defend”, and another urged him to “get out fast.” Just outside of town, he settled under a tree, unrolled his bindle have a bit of breakfast and gather his thoughts. As he forced down a lump of food, two small figures appeared on the horizon. Peter crouched down and soon could make out an old negro bicycle tramp and a small black and brown wirehaired mutt. The dog wore a bell that sang as he trotted down the road. Peter decided to take his chances and shouted out,“Hey Bo! Good morning to you friend!”

The old man seemed startled, and it wasn’t until the fellow closed the gap between them and stopped his bicycle that Peter saw why. His milky white eyes were those of a Blinkey. He was either nearly or fully blind.

““What business you got here, boy?”

“I’m looking for my brother. He went missing two seasons ago in Chadwick.”

The old man hesitated for a moment.

“Ain’t no lil ‘uns in Chadwick, and if you go to the place, you gon’ be gone too.”

Peter cleared his throat and willed his voice to stay steady.

“What happens to the little ones in Chadwick?”

“Some things ought not to be talked about, son.”

“I have a twenty cent that says otherwise.”

The old man pondered for a moment and shoved out his hand.

“The Aklalov place. North of town. They farm sheep. You get answers there, but God save your soul. ”

Peter listened to the bell growing fainter and fainter as he headed north. He followed the dusty roads until he saw a shack in the distance, pockets of white nestled in the hills.

Peter hunched behind the shack, but had a clear sight of the inside from a window above the storm doors. He always knew how to move with the shadows. He recognized the smell of potatoes in stew. A giant woman stood over the pot carefully, preparing dinner for what seemed like a family that wasn’t there.

What Peter recognized more than the stew was the thick footsteps of a burled man as he approached the door.

It was a Bull – his whip looped around his buckle, his hulking arms. He remembered those arms raising the whip as Peter scrambled toward the woods.

This time, his arms didn’t carry his whip. He was dragging a child behind him and tossed him in front of the woman with the missing family as he burst through the door.

The giant woman wiped her hands on her apron and said nothing. She only looked the boy up and down.

“I not give you more than four dollar. This boy hasn’t eaten in weeks. What am I to do with this?”

“Feed it. His size is not my problem.”

The boy was made of bones, his elbows jutting out from his skin. He wore his hunger on his face, eyeballing the bread on the table as the two adults bickered over him.

“Roger said five dollars. And the boy is willing.”

The plump woman stared him down.

“Boy. You can lift cart?”

The boy said nothing, continuing to stare at the bread.

“You don’t eat that. Bread not for boys with no manners.”

The boy sounded like a titmouse. He squeaked his words.

“I’ll carry anything you need carried.”

The woman sighed and tossed him the bread, watching as he inhaled it.

“Boy no better than food for tiger. He won’t even survive trip to Greenville.”

The bull shifted his legs.

“Like I said. Not my problem. He can be the Temple Circus’s next lizard boy. I heard you’re missing one of those.”

The woman reluctantly shuffled to a box in the corner and shoved money in the bull’s hand. It was an otherwise plain box with a red bear on its lid.

“It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.” His whip creaked around his buckle as he pocketed the money.

It was the bull from the night of the raid. Peter wanted to burst through the window and strangle him, as the thought of Fitz being thrown across the woman’s kitchen floor and sold to her disregard filled him with fury. But that wouldn’t get Fitz back. There weren’t any options. You don’t fight a bull. He had to head to the Temple Circus.

Greenville was seven counties over and trains didn’t run often enough. It’d be truck riding and foot to get there.

By the time Peter arrived in Greenville, his feet were blistered. He was hungrier than usual. He’d become accustomed to the feeling, but the pains in his side were roaring instead of a quiet murmur.

The townspeople had poured out into the dusty streets of Greenville to watch the red tops erect even in the distance. With so many of them out in the streets, Peter had to keep to the alleys and shanties. He hadn’t seen any signals as to whether Greenville was friendly to tramps.

Peter had never seen a circus. Tents should be easy enough to slip, with railroad hopping under his belt.

When the tents were staked into the ground, it was easier to slip in and out unnoticed. People were too busy staring at the elephants and the painted clowns, clutching their children’s hands and getting the little ones to stop squealing. The smell of lemons, roasted peanuts and cake doughnuts filled the air.

Peter found a spot toward the back, hiding under a railing. He noticed he could catch falling peanuts from the rows above him if he paid enough attention. It was dark underneath the railings, but the lights would occasionally gleam into the shadows, and digging around for them would have pinched him for sure. He stayed still, moving his arms carefully to catch the forgotten food.

Elephants danced in circles like ballerinas, and bears were kept as pets. A man smiled at the crowd, throwing back the curtain and leading out a giant orange cat. Peter had never seen such an enormous cat, its black stripes stretching around its massive muscles. A man came out and uncurled a whip to the ground, commanding the cat to stand up and bear its long teeth. The whip was longer than the ones he’d seen the Bulls use, and hearing its crack, his stomach churned, feeling sorry for the cat. But the cat listened, bearing his teeth with a roar as he’d been trained to do.

Then men crossed ropes at the top of the tent, throwing a boy from swing to swing in the air. The boy couldn’t have been a year older than Peter – his red curls reminded him of Rusty Tiptoes. Rusty had been the best car hopper in 30 counties. Peter remembered camping with him years ago, as Rusty told stories of how many cars he’d hopped, shifting his feet in the dark to change his direction, any time he pleased. East to West. From South to North. Back and forth, like the boy in the sky. Rusty had told him over the campfire that the trick was to never be afraid of falling.

The boy in the sky spun through the air and hopped on the bar quickly, lifting his toes. Tiptoes. Peter’s breath became shorter in that moment. Rusty Tiptoes, the best car hopper in 30 counties, wasn’t jumping cars anymore.

Peter slipped into the crowd as it emptied from the tent. There would be plenty of places to sleep for the night – barns and camp tents covered the plain. He picked a hay bale behind an old barn away from the rest of the action, but he could still hear the animals in the distance. There had been no Fitz. He wasn’t being tossed in the sky; he wasn’t selling peanuts. Peter wanted to resolve himself to never seeing him at all, but hope was a tricky thing, and he remembered why he had avoided it for so long. It had a hold of him now.

He had to go back. The crowds were too thick and the expanse of the circus to big for him to call it quits.

The next morning, Peter slipped into the boundary tape and walked. He’d pick up trash from time to time to look at though he was hired to do it – it was the oldest trick he had.

Crowds gathered again as the posters unfurled above a stage. The Mermaid Girl. The Bearded Lady. The Half Boy. They almost sounded like hobo names.

A man with a wax mustache called out to the crowd, enticing the ladies and gentlemen to move closer to the stage. The Crocodile Man. The Snake Charmer. The Sword Swallower.

The sword swallower was next. His amazing feats would be sure to astound.

It wasn’t a large man with muscles that entered stage left. It was a boy, younger than Peter, who stood silently as he surveyed the crowd and waited patiently for the caller’s instruction.

The blond curls, the lanky figure. A littler taller now, but Peter knew the shape has well as he knew the two “U”s in all the sign posts.

It was Fitz.

Fitz waited patiently for instruction and for the anticipation of the crowd to grow. He pulled a sword from the stage floor and inserted it down his throat. Peter wanted to gasp, but the air was gone.

The sword comes out of Fitz’s throat and he bows, shuffling behind the curtain as the crowd screams with wonder.

“Now, you fine ladies and gentlemen, who would like to come see the sights of the macabre, the morose, the stunning and the stupefying?

A fat man shoves his way in front of Peter, his coins outstretched to the stage, hungry for entertainment. Peter feels around in his pocket for his harvest money. It is his winter insurance, his blanket – all he has left. He fills his hand with all the currency it will hold and throws it in the air.

“ME! I DO!”

The caller sees the wad of bills in Peter’s hand and pauses his breathless liturgy. He points directly at Peter and makes clear that Peter is the boy from the crowd he wants to see.

“YOU, my fine young man, step right up! Come this way! Now this is what we call a hungry kid! Hungry for a show!”

Peter moves through the waves of people as they push him along, the din getting quieter as he felt his pulse. He’s lifted onto the stage as the caller shakes his hand and pulls him close and whispers into his ear.

“Congratulations, kid. I’ve never seen a better shill. You spend all the time you want back there.”

Peter slips behind the curtains, the smell of fish hitting his nostrils. He moved his way down the dark corridor, until he came to the first exhibit. He gawked at the figure. A half figure, actually. He locked eyes with the legless boy as he moved down the hall, quickening his step. He moves past the Mermaid lady, with similar disinterest, this time avoiding eye contact. He almost could have caught her confused stare.

As he approaches the next exhibit, his heart pounds. He leans against the rope.

“Fitz,” he struggled to keep his voice low.

Fitz was standing on a platform, and it took a moment for his eyes to meet Peter’s. Fitz’s eyes grew wide with recognition, and he jumped from his platform at the same time Peter crossed the rope.

They met in a hard embrace, tears streaming down Peter’s face.

“Let’s go. I’m getting you out of here.”

Fitz balked and seemed conflicted.

“Fitz, let’s go! What’s wrong?”

Fitz only stared.

“Come on! What’s wrong?”

Fitz opened his mouth as if to speak and then closed it again.

“Fitz! Talk to me! We don’t have much time.”

The sword swallower locked eyes with his friend, his eyes welling up with tears. He opened his mouth wider and stepped toward Peter into the light.

Peter stepped back in horror as he looked at the gaping hole where Fitz once had a tongue. His voice shook as he demanded, “What have they done to you?!”

Fitz walked over to the stage and picked up the sword and began to write in the dusty ground.

He etches out the symbol for “safe place” in the dust. Then “food here.”

“There’s food elsewhere, Fitz! I can take care of you.”

Fitz pauses for a moment and carves again in the dust.

Peter stares at the symbol scratched into the dirt.

“End of the road.”

“I’m not leaving you. We’re family.”

Fitz carves the symbol into the ground again. .

He looks Fitz in the eyes, and whispers,

“Bucket Boys.”

He takes the sword from Fitz’s hand, drawing their moniker into the dirt. Two “U”s inside of circles. He drops the sword at Fitz’s feet.

Peter takes a deep breath and pulls his jack knife from his pocket.

“Together forever. I hear they’re missing a Lizard boy.”

Peter pulled his tongue from his mouth, and with one fluid motion, sliced his tongue in two.

© 2013 Danielle Nichols, Nathan Davis, Denise Mullenix

“Mercury” by Team Tennant

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Mercury

 

By Team Tennant

“Aw, we should’ve gone to Safeway – this place really screws you over.”

“Keep it down,” Jonathan looked at his tall, smudgy image on a hanging TV as he walked onto the linoleum. “You can’t talk like that here – these people are politically correct as shit.”

Jonathan looked at a pyramid display of gluten-free cookies where a mom was working out a deal with her hungry-looking little boy.

“Poor kid,” said David. “I bet he could use some doughnuts about now.”

The brothers passed a large, rustic mural as they walked through the produce section – paced between the eggplants and cabbages with heads bent as if saving one last remembrance at an open-casket funeral. A vast, rustic mural scratched at the walls behind the “Fresh Earth,” section – long stretches of cornfields make mazes for little Midwestern children who, like most Midwestern children, have trouble finding their way out anyhow.

“How much corn are we going to need?”

“I don’t know. I figured just one each, right?” Jonathan said, “You’re the one who wanted corn in the first place.”

“Mom and Dad didn’t exactly leave us that much steak.”

“Whatever David. Just buy two and let’s get out of here.”

“Hold on, now,” said David with new life. “They have two for four dollars on corn – we’re making off like bandits!”

“I feel like that’s really not that great of a deal.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I mean the corn here is probably really organic and tastes better, but I know other places sell it for like fifty cents. I can’t picture spending $4.00 on corn.”

“What other places?”

“I don’t know off the top of my head,” replied Jonathan.

A new mother and son pair surveyed the vegetable section. She explained how beets are good for your blood in a loud whisper.

“Yeah, let’s just get two for four,” said Jonathan. “At least these ones aren’t supporting the whole food corruption thing.”

“What food corruption thing?”

“You know, like the monopolies and stuff. I don’t know, haven’t you seen those documentaries?”

“Why would I want to ruin all food?”

“It’s not ruining food if you’re just a little more informed.”

“Whatever Jon, I don’t want to see cows getting their throats slit and shit,” David grimaced.

The second mother and son vacated the vegetable section with brisk, liberal strides until they couldn’t hear obscenities. The Sojourn from the produce section to the registers seemed like a grueling proposition. David shuffled past a to-go lunch section. He got big eyes over the sushi.

“We should get lunch here sometime.”

“Are you eying the sushi?”

“Of course, man,” David felt a little cultured. “Sushi’s so good.”

“Don’t eat that, man.”

“Why?” asked David, a little angry.

“It’s probably irradiated, dude.”

“It’s what?”

“Irradiated,” said Jonathan, “from the nuclear waste in Japan.”

“Oh, please. That shit hasn’t harmed anything since that dock washed up.”

Jonathan spared David his potential mercury-tuna rant.

David picked up a variety pack of sushi in defiance.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Tuna has a ton of mercury in it.”

“Oh, please. Piss off.”

“I’m serious – it can poison you if you eat too much. It’s like eating an old thermometer.”

“Tuna is delicious.”

“Excuse me, are you two talking about mercury in tuna?”

A balding man approached the pair with gentle steps and leaned on a nearby cheese display. The man’s worn, turquoise fleece gave the man an air of credibility regarding marine life. The brothers couldn’t tell his age exactly, but if he had offspring, they likely would have been birthed after The Dukes of Hazard went into syndication, and before Michael Jordan tried baseball.

“Who are you?” inquired David.

“My name’s Sam. I used to be an animal trainer.”

“So you know about animals.”

“Well, tuna in particular,” he raised his salt and peppered eyebrows, “I used to train dolphins.”

The brothers smirked and passed off their collective, devilish countenance as sincere interest.

“So is it okay to eat tuna?”

“Well, I can’t imagine it would be that bad for you, but you could be harming dolphins.”

“How?”

“Did you know that oftentimes dolphins get stuck in tuna nets?”

“Seriously?” said David with as much sincerity as he could muster. “So do they put dolphins in tuna cans?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said a downtrodden Sam.

David put back the sushi lunch pack – said goodbye to the packet of wasabi and made his sad way toward the counter. The logo on Mr. Hoot’s Fruit Twisters only reminded him of the diminishing population of cloud-forest screech owls.

Jonathan approached the counter and grinned at the lady behind it. Her name tag said, “Susan.” Susan looked as though she was bred to work the register at a place like this. Somewhere in the leathery musk that was the 1970s lived a timid buck and a flowery mare by which the cosmos forged Susan.

“Go get the car and pull it up to the front, David.”

Jonathan tossed the keys underhand to David, and David slunk outside.

“That’ll be four dollars today. Did you find everything alright?”

Jonathan looked at the door and then at Susan.

“Oh, dang! I forgot one thing.”

Jonathan returned with rosy cheeks.

“Alright, so with the sushi, that will be twelve dollars.”

© 2013 Andrew Tennant, Colette Tennant