Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Category: Fantasy Free Reads

“It Could Happen To You”- A Soledad City Story

Sun’s a fingernail in the fog when he gets on. Night man on a downtown bus full of day people: glass-faced Westsiders curled in Armani shells pinch their ears and nostrils shut when he fills up three seats behind the driver.

Extravagant in filth and fatness, enthroned on bulging garbage bags,  he scratches the hole in the crotch of his greasy sweatpants, rubs his gritty stomach and throws the story at them:

How the Hare Krishnas got him. Just sneaked up when he was asleep in the doorway of a dead pawn shop down by the Post Office on Main Street. And they poured their juice, that Hare Krishna juice, right over him.

Well it was sticky and purple and it smelled bad too, so he begged enough change for the laundry at 4 am.  Had to beg some more for a pint or two just to get past the shock.

Got to watch out for those Krishnas.  They got plots in those little naked heads. They’ll get you every time.  And that juice of theirs? Well they’d just love to splash those slick leather shoes or drown some thousand dollar suit.

You know

It could happen to you.

“It Could Happen To You” was inspired – no, dictated – by an encounter I observed on one of my many foggy, early morning bus rides when I was teaching in Los Angeles.  Taking the Pico-Rimpau route at dawn has inspired a lot of my weirder flash bits.)

“Where Angels Tread” – A Sorrows Hill Story

When the Reverend Henry Chilton sees the angel, he drops to his knees sobbing with joy. The half-scribbled sheets of tomorrow’s sermon fly from his desk, floating down on a summer-scented breeze from the open window, and his teacup, caught by an unwary elbow, shatters into porcelain shards on the floor.

He was writing the sermon when a sound like the rustling of pigeons in the rafters made him look up. And there was the messenger of God, settling demurely onto the top of his bookcase, dangling bare white feet over his head.

The angel’s translucent skin is luminous and perfect.   Fair hair tumbles over the bones of its classic face. And the wings — God, the wings! Think of the blinding white of swans, the sweet softness of doves.   Those wings are muscular and functional, and they drape the angel’s shoulders like a velvet cloak. Chilton’s mouth is an O of fascinated delight.

Kneeling among the fragments, trousers soaking in cold tea, the Reverend Chilton raises his eyes skyward and gives thanks. Finally, finally: so long he’s prayed, so long he’s waited!

Tears slip from the reverend’s eyes. Ever since he was a child he’s wanted to see an angel. When he got to seminary he prayed till his throat was raw, begging God’s favor for just a glimpse of one of those celestial heralds.   And now, after all these years, all these tedious postings to backwater towns and Sunday after Sunday of earnest sermons to indifferent flocks, success! A visible mark of God’s own grace.

“Reverend? Reverend, you’ve got a visitor.” A sharp rap on the door rips Chilton’s attention from the angel.

“Who is it, Mrs. Reedie? I’m busy with the sermon just now.”

“A young man, Reverend. He says he’s come all the way from Richmond to see you.” Mrs. Reedie’s voice drops. “Quite well turned out, he is. Shall I have him wait?”

Chilton glances at his other visitor. The angel cocks its head like a listening dog.

“I said, I’m busy, Mrs. Reedie. Tell him to come back after supper.”

The housekeeper’s sniff is audible through the door. Ignoring the staccato tap of her heels down the hall, Chilton turns back to the angel.

“So sorry, holy one. As I was saying — what have you to tell me? How am I so blessed on this day?”

The angel regards him blandly and preens a wing. Chilton draws a breath and tries again. “How may I serve you? Only speak –”

“Reverend Chilton?” The doorknob rattles.

“For the last time, Mrs. Reedie! I am busy!” snarls Chilton.

Scuffle of footsteps; gasp of outrage. The door flies open on Mrs. Reedie’s furious face, and a young man shoves past her, closing the door neatly behind him.

“Don’t you remember me, Reverend?” he asks.

Chilton swallows. Something in this gorgeous young man’s lean face and long narrow nose , the curl of dark hair on an expensive white collar, tickles his memory.

As the silence stretches, the young man’s mouth twists.

“Laurence Shandy, Reverend. I’m Laurence. It’s been twelve years.”

The silence turns leaden. Chilton forces a smile.

“Laurence, yes, of course! You’ve grown up. Doing well, by the look of you. I wondered what had become of you.”

“Did you?” asks the young man silkily. His hand slips free of his pocket. Sunlight gleams along the barrel of a tiny pistol. “Couldn’t you guess?”

“Put that down.” Chilton backs a step or two. “Laurence, put that gun away . . . you moved to Richmond, didn’t you? That’s what it was, your father took up a new post at the hospital in Richmond. Isn’t that right?”

“No.” The gun trembles in Laurence Shandy’s fingers. “Twelve years, Reverend Chilton . Twelve years in that hospital. Locked ward. I tried to kill myself. Tried to escape to kill you. I prayed, I wept . . . I remembered every moment of what you did to me. And what you said about me, after.”

God, yes, Laurence Shandy. Big mouth boy with a rich, angry father. The only way Chilton had got out of that one had been to assert, again and again and again, how the lad was crazy, possessed maybe, misconstruing his pastoral ministrations like that.

“But, “ Shandy continues, “You always said, if you pray hard enough for long enough, God hears. And so it is.”

“What — ” whispers Chilton, eyes on the dancing barrel of Shandy’s weapon, “what did you pray for, Laurence?”

“I prayed for justice.” Shandy’s finger tenses on the trigger. “And an angel to guide me.”

The shot sounds a little like a cork popping.    Blood flowers on the front of Chilton’s good shirt as he topples to the floor. On a rustle of heavenly wings, the angel rests its fabulous head on Laurence Shandy’s shoulder.

 

 

 

“Three Feathers” – A Soledad City Story

Toward sunset, after the thunder stops, Henry Joe takes Bobby’s pickup. It’s a fine big truck, never mind the dent on the side where the old roan kicked it, and the slit in the seat where Bobby’s woman had the knife that time.

In the old days, Henry Joe would’ve put on his paint and his feathers, and slung a leg over the back of a sleek red horse. But that was before the white man pushed the people onto the rez, took their horses and their pride, and so tonight he makes do with Bobby’s king cab. He’s got a handful of bills in his pocket and the sound of Jadie’s voice in his head, and the City has the only cure he knows.

Bobby’s out with the stock, so Henry Joe asks Sam Bass to come along.

“Goin to get me a drink,” says Henry Joe. “Goin to get me so drunk I’ll forget my name. Goin to forget how Jadie walked out for a white man and how I never got my check.”

Sam squints at the clouds dragging sunset on a wild wind, and he squints at the light that pours like blood on the wet sand and the saguaros .  “I don’t know, man,” he says. “Changes comin with the moon.  Old men can feel it. Raven’s spreadin out his wings on the wind. . Goin to make his choice tonight I bet.”

Henry Joe leans his elbow out the cab window.   Against a sky gray as velvet, a rainbow stretches from one corner of the horizon to the other. Underneath it like a ghost stretches a second rainbow, and beneath that, another, fainter yet.

A chill dances up Henry Joe’s spine, because the triple rainbow means Sam Bass is right. Raven’s walking in the world tonight, looking for his chosen one. But because his heart feels full of stones, and he’s already got the loan of Bobby’s truck, he forces a laugh.

“Old men got to talk about somethin. Don’t tell me you buy that old time bullshit.” Henry Joe lifts his face to the western sky. “Don’t care if Raven is scoutin for a medicine man tonight. It ain’t goin to be you. And it sure as hell ain’t goin to be me. We’ll be too drunk for him to care about us.”

Sam Bass shrugs. “Nothin we can do about it anyhow I guess.” He swings open the passenger door of Bobby’s truck. One foot on the floorboard, he looks at Henry Joe. “But I got to make a stop first, all right?”

Henry Joe raises an eyebrow. “I already got us some beer for the road.”

Sam Bass doesn’t laugh. “No. I got to go by my auntie’s. I promised her, next time I go up to Soledad –”

A tightness begins in Henry Joe’s stomach. “You’ll be back before she ever knows you’re gone.”

Sam slams the door harder than he needs to. “No. She’ll know.”

Sam Bass’ auntie Nettie Chubai is a witch and a healer, and she scares the living piss out of Henry Joe. That eye of hers, the one that doesn’t look straight, always seems to follow you like a knife in your back.

As long as Henry Joe can remember, people have whispered and muttered about Nettie and the magics she works in that little house at the end of the Horn Pipe Road. How she said a word one night and all of Jackie Juan’s cows turned up their heels and died, just because he’d called her a witch to her face. How she woke the sleeping saguaros and made them warriors once again, to save the soul of her own granddaughter.

Nettie Chubai is both crazy and mean, and she has more magic in her little finger than most folks gather up in a lifetime or two. So Henry Joe hunkers down in the cab of Bobby’s truck with his hat pulled low over his face, and waits for Sam Bass to come out of the house.

Five minutes and done: Sam clatters down the porch steps and dives into the truck, dumping a bulging paper sack onto the seat next to Henry. Behind him, Nettie Chubai stands watchful on her porch, toadish in her pink flowered muumuu and plastic thongs.

“Let’s go!” blurts Sam. Henry hits the gas.

And so they mount up: new warriors of the People in their good jeans and bolas and diamondback boots with no horse shit under the heels. Sam Bass has a feather in his hatband, and Henry Joe’s hair is tied back with a braided leather thong.

The bag rests, too heavy for its size, on the seat between them. Ignoring it as hard as they can, they roll their way down the Interstate toward Soledad City. Henry Joe eases them off the snakes’ nest of interchanges, aiming for the neon alleys back behind the River Walk, when Sam Bass speaks.

“Turn off at Spring Street.”

Henry Joe opens his mouth, closes it again, glances at the bag with sudden understanding. Wordlessly he shifts lanes.

South of downtown, where all the signs are in Spanish, Sam Bass points at a white cube of a building on the corner. The windows are barred with wrought iron in the shapes of flowers, and painted roses curl around the arching letters above the door: La Curanderia, the healer’s shop.

“Won’t be but a minute,” says Sam Bass. “OK, Henry Joe?”

Sam’s face is sheened with sweat, and his eyes flicker between Henry Joe and the Curanderia. Henry Joe’s heart jumps a beat or two, but he pulls over to the curb. Sam reaches for the bag,, but his fingers curl and a queasy look passes over his face.

“You come too,” says Sam.

Henry Joe lights up a smoke and shakes his head. “I’m just the driver. You’re the messenger boy.”

Sam Bass touches Henry Joe’s sleeve. “Maybe Raven don’t care who we are. Maybe he does. But my auntie sends a gift to Mama Silva. And she’s sure as shit goin to care if it sits out here gettin – ah, gettin . . .. ”

Stale?  Cold?  Hot?

Sam’s hand hovers over the bag, trembling.   “Come on, Henry Joe.   You got to help me.”

Henry Joe squints through the smoke at the little white storefront. Who hasn’t heard of Mama Silva? Catty corner from the boarded up liquor store, Mama Silva’s open all the time, working fearsome magics in her back room behind a curtain made of beads . Crack heads and knife fights and sirens in the night: Mama Silva just goes on. She’s older than the mountains and wiser than the moon, and she plays with people’s lives like they’re puppets on strings wet with blood.

Henry Joe keeps as far away from magic as he can. Before she died of drinking, his mother told him how the night that he was born, the wind cried till the dawn came, and when the sun came up, there were three feathers on the windowsill: one black, one barred, and one grey like a dove’s. She carried her newborn boy to the window, she said, and when he saw those feathers his tiny little hand reached out sure and strong, and picked up that black feather by its quill.

She spent her life convinced her fifth-born one had been touched by the Spirits, and Henry Joe’s spent his whole  life running from the thought.

If that’s possible, Mama Silva scares him more than Nettie Chubai.   So he and Sam sit staring at each other, at Mama Silva’s front door, at anything but that damn sack. They could be here all night while Sam screws up the nerve to pick it up, and Henry Joe can’t stand that crawling dread any longer.

“Ah shit,” he says, and swinging open the door, he grabs the thing from the seat. The sudden weight of it, far more than its size should allow, drags his arm to the ground. Sam’s eyes roll; he flings open the door and starts down the sidewalk, never looking back. Henry Joe hauls the sack up into both arms, ignoring the squishy shifting of the contents, and follows Sam to Mama Silva’s door.

Sam Bass eases open the carved front door and they step into a little room full of golden lamplight and the smell of incense. Shelves along the wall hold votives and little pots labeled in Spanish. Crucifixes and statues of the Virgin fill a glass display case in the front. By the window two old women dressed in black and silver whisper, heads together, over a box filled with bundles of dried herbs.

Beads rattle like mesquite beans. Henry Joe glances up, mouth suddenly dry. Lamplight fractures like tiny rainbows on the crystals hanging from the doorway of another room in back. They part, and a small woman in black steps through.

She has silver hair piled high with combs and the hard proud face of a Mayan queen, and with a smile she holds out her hand to Sam Bass.

“Welcome, mijo. And how is your tia keeping?”

Sam casts a wild eye at Henry Joe. His voice creaks. “She’s, well, she says, uh, hello. She sends this.”

Cued, Henry Joe leans around from behind him. The contents of the bag sag moistly against his chest. His arms ache from the weight. “Where do you want it?” he hears himself say.

“Give Nettie my thanks,” says Mama Silva, and reaching up, she plucks the sack neatly from Henry Joe’s grasp. Lifting it in one hand like a grocery bag full of feathers, she gestures the two of them into the curtained room.

The two old women by the window glance up from their herbs. Smiling, Mama Silva tells them something in rapid-fire Spanish; they beam at Sam and Henry Joe.

That smile sends a worm of fear across the back of Henry Joe’s neck. He clears his throat. Mama Silva turns her black-ice eyes upon him.

“Come in, querido, and have some tea. I knew your mother, once.”

Down at the place on South Dorado Street, tired rockabilly blares from the jukebox in the corner and clubhoppers dance the cat dance of attraction late into the night. Henry Joe just sits at the bar, watching them all and nursing another Red Eye all alone.

Sam Bass bought the first round and then he vanished to the pool room with a chica in tight white pants, leaving Henry Joe on his own. Never mind his faithless Jadie. Never mind the business about the late check for the stockyard job. Now all Henry Joe wants to forget is ten minutes in the candlelit back room of Mama Silva’s shop.

Tea, amber in a white china cup; the rich dark colors of the altar to the Black Virgin and the tapestry on the wall; the sad eyes of the Son of God, meeting Henry’s own as he listened to Mama Silva’s voice: Henry Joe’s stomach twists just thinking of it.

“So here you are,” Mama Silva had said. “What is your name?”

Henry Joe sipped tea, though he usually hated it; thought it tasted like dirty water. But Mama Silva’s tea left a taste of cinnamon and honey on his tongue and warmth in his veins. “Henry Joe Rubio. Ma’am.”

Mama Silva smiled, and Henry Joe thought of snakes in the sun. “Not that name. The one that came with the feathers, the night that you were born. Do you still have the feathers?”

Henry Joe blinked. Yes, he did, one of the few things his mama made him swear to keep. She’d tied a red thread around the quill of that black one. Reading the answer in his eyes, Mama Silva leaned across the table.

“The wind said, he is coming. The rainbow said, tonight. When that name comes, you will know it.  And you must answer to it, whenever Raven calls.”

Her lips, dry and cool, brushed his cheek. ”Welcome to the true world, brujo mio.”

Brujo: witch, magician, sorcerer.  Him? Oh no no no.   The tea rose bitter in the back of Henry Joe’s mouth and a chill washed down his spine. And to his burning shame, he’d flung himself out of that room and into the refuge of Bobby’s truck without another word.

Coming out a minute later, Sam had nothing to say. He’d looked hard at Henry Joe, eyes full of awe and something like sadness, and slammed the door.

“God damn, man,” he said.  Henry Joe’s stomach clenched tight and he gunned that pickup down Spring Street, barreling through the traffic just as if he could outrun Mama Silva’s voice in his head.

Later:

On the bar the dancers sway, bare breasts defying gravity. Henry Joe drains his glass and beckons for another. A woman stalks past, glitter and ice in pale pink satin. She trails a hand across his shoulder. Henry Joe squints. Behind her bronze blushed cheeks and indigo eyes hangs, ghostly in the flickering light, the face of an owl. She smiles, and the owl face vanishes.

He glances around. Down at the end of the bar, a tall thin man stands talking; his face, turned half away, is the face of a rabbit. Clutching his glass like a lifeline, Henry Joe scans the room.   Horse, Hawk, Snake . . . the spirit faces shimmer, drifting in and out over the faces of the people dancing, talking, drinking all around him.

A short man in a checkered Mexican shirt ,muscling past, bumps his shoulder, and he glances down into the eyes of Coyote. The man grins a toothy grin and nods: You got me, son.   Henry Joe sets down the glass and launches himself toward the door, booze and corn nuts rising in his belly.

                      Outside:

 The parking lot is blacktop and ashes. The moon, riding high on the last of the clouds, leaches away all color from the brick walls and gleaming asphalt. Deep in the shadows by the alley mouth, Henry Joe folds up sourmouthed and dizzy, wondering where the hell Sam is. Where the truck is. Where his brains are.

“How about it, babe?’

“Not here.”

“Come on, come on … nobody gonna see.”

Henry Joe raises his head. The voices are real. Down at the end of the wall, where the alley meets the mouth of Dorado Street, stand a man and a woman.

Moonlight gleams on plastic: the barrel of a syringe, the edge of a baggie.

“He will,” says the woman, and Henry Joe knows she’s looking at him.

“Goddamn Injuns.” The man’s voice is hard with contempt. “Always drunk. Can’t see his own shoes much less us.”

Henry Joe lets the voices wash over him.   His head droops to his chest and he drifts away on a tide of tequila and beer.

“No! Leave me –” The woman’s voice, rising to a full-bore scream, slices through his fog. There’s a thump and a scuffle, muttered curses.

“Fuckin whore –” Glint of a knife at the alley mouth: the black bulk of the man’s body presses the woman into the wall. Moonlight catches the rhinestone glitter of one high heeled shoe; gleams on the blood that runs down one white arm.

Henry Joe’s stomach seizes up; he presses his arms tight against it to hold the contents down and curls himself into the shadows by the wall.

Something jabs his eyelid. He squints at a gleaming curve of beak inches from his face. All around him, black wings stretch as wide as this city sky.

“It’s time,” says Raven. “Tell me now. What’s your name?”

Henry Joe’s stomach heaves up again. He leans his cheek against the cool gray brick and realizes he’s not drunk enough yet.

“Henry.”

Raven’s jet eyes burn in the flickering lights of Dorado Street.   “No. The real one.”

Henry Joe thinks of feathers in a cloth bag under his bed. Thinks of triple rainbows and Mama Silva’s lips on his cheek. Thinks of another name, carried hidden all his life in the deepest corner of his mind. He moans.

“The one I gave you,” says Raven. “The one I’ve been calling all fucking evening.”

The name tickles on the edges of Henry Joe’s brain, but it doesn’t come. Henry Joe curls up against the wall, the concrete gritty against his forehead. A hand seizes his hair, jerks his head around. He stares into the cold black eye of a tall sharp faced man in a black T shirt, leaning over inches from his face.

“Did I make a mistake? Better hope I did not. My choice is my choice. Claim it. Walk out a witch and a warrior,” hisses Raven, jerking his head at the struggling figures in the alleyway. “Or die here in your own puke with no name at all.”

Blackness falls around Henry Joe, the spreading of wings wider than the world, and then he’s all alone under the chinaberry trees, gaping at the moon.

Time starts running again. The name, the one Raven gave him before he was ever born, flares in his mind like a beacon, driving away fear and rage and drowned dreams. He hauls himself up and stumbles toward the alley mouth.

The man with the knife–skinny, Anglo, drug-eyed –swings around, flinging the woman to the pavement.

“You want it? Come on, Tonto.” He closes on Henry Joe, aiming a kick at his knees.

  Henry Joe’s spent his whole life wrangling cattle and shoeing horses.   With Raven’s words hot in his mind, he rolls and grabs, and the man goes down, the knife arcing from his hand. The Anglo grapples, slamming Henry Joe face down on the pavement.

Henry Joe tastes oil and ashes; he scrambles for the knife, fingers closing on it as the other man pounces on his back. But Henry Joe slips sideways and swings up the blade. Blood like hot rain spatters his face. On a sobbing breath, the other man lurches to his feet. Running footsteps clatter down the alley.

The world narrows down to darkness and the pounding in Henry Joe’s head.   Hauling himself to his knees, he looks up.

By the alley wall the woman stands sobbing. He picks himself up and eases an arm around her thin shoulders. She’s a little thing, wispy blond barely up to his shoulder, and a bruise is blooming on one sharp cheekbone. She clutches her arm; blood oozes through her fingers.

“It’s OK,” says Henry Joe. “It’s OK.”

She glances at Henry Joe, glances into the silent blackness of the alley.

“Holy shit,” she says.

Down the front street, sirens start to wail. The woman’s eyes flick back to Henry Joe. Red and blue lights flash, bouncing off the wall behind the Hotel Marley.

“Lemme help you –“ Henry Joe begins. “ You oughta get that cut looked at –“

She shakes her head. “No. I got to go. But hey –“ she pops up on tiptoe and kisses the corner of his mouth, light as the touch of a mothwing.

“Thanks. What’s your name, man?”

Henry Joe, he starts to say. But his head fills up with stars and the beating of great black wings. Beyond the neon, beyond the black towers of the downtown banks, the sky is full of moonlight. A long dark feather drifts across its face and spirals down, brushing his face. The woman glances at him, at the flashing lights, at the alley mouth, and takes off running around the corner as fast as her sequined heels will go.

Henry Joe  plucks the feather from the pavement. His name, the name that Raven’s been calling all evening, falls easy into his mind. His head is full of thunder, and lightning dances all along his nerves. He starts to laugh.    Welcome to the true world.                       

                       

“Run With The Moon” – A Soledad City Story

 

Deep in the hour just before dawn, Adam jolts awake. What did he hear, out there on the makeshift front porch of this battered old Airstream? Or was it nothing but a dream of gunfire and roadside bombs in that other desert, half a world away?

He lies still, listening. No sounds now but the usual ones: a night bird’s sleepy chitter, yip and giggle of coyotes down the wash. But after a moment, there it is again, a rustle and thump right out front.

“God damn it,” says Adam. Where’s that crazy streak of witching when you need it the most? Well, he’s got other ways to handle business. Swinging out of bed, he reaches for the gun beside his pillow.

Slipping silently as his bad leg lets him, Adam pushes the screen door open and peers out. There’s a white full moon hanging just over the mountains, and the sky is turning silver blue with daylight coming.   Across the stretch of empty field out front, a neon sign blazes bright: Holland’s 24 Hour Truck Stop and Cafe. A couple of big rigs and a handful of cars dot the parking lot, but there’s not a soul to be seen.

Adam steps out, good leg first, onto the little deck he’s built out of pallet wood.

And he smiles. Adam’s heart is a cold dark place, But right now, warmth like summer noon spreads right through him.

Curled behind the rusty lawn chair in a nest of her own clothes, she sleeps like a puppy. Long coppery hair streams across her face and her bare legs are streaked with dried blood. There’s a long raw cut on her forearm and a smear of blood on her lips, and Adam’s never seen anything so beautiful in his life.

He leans in and gently pulls a twig of mesquite from the hair behind her ear.

“Mornin, Velocity,” he says.

Her eyes pop open, whiskey gold and wary wide, but then her mouth curves up. “Hey, Adam.”

She sits up cross-legged, her bare skin fairy dusted with freckles and her little nipples hard in the chill of the morning. For a dizzy moment Adam feels like flying. She came. She has the whole desert to run in, but she came here.

What do you think that means? That voice in Adam’s head is his own.  What the hell do you hope that means, boy?

“‘Want some breakfast?” he asks. “I got bacon and eggs, toast maybe.”

“I already ate,” she tells him, glancing at the blood on her leg.

“Guess you did.” Adam leans against the Airstream’s curving side.   “Had a good night?”

Velocity stretches out her arm, examining the cut. “Oh, man. That moon – did you see it? – just burning in our eyes, so bright. Uncle Silver and the pups flushed out some rabbits down by the wash. Me and Auntie Whitefoot and Sweetwater were coming up behind, but we all got some.”

She licks thoughtfully at the wound. “Sweetwater and I jumped the same big old buck. We got into it a little bit, but Uncle settled things down pretty quick.” A flashing grin. “Sweetwater’s all right. That ear’ll heal up fine. She’ll think twice next time, though. You got any coffee?”

If his legs would let him, Adam’d probably be dancing right now. Instead, he nods and hobbles back inside to put the coffee on. Odd thing about mornings with Velocity. Most days, he wakes up to the endless mutter of the voices in his head, talking and talking till he falls asleep at night. But whenever she stops by here, they shut right up.

By the time he brings out two steaming mugs, she’s just about dressed, T-shirt and jeans and a pair of battered caballero boots from Mexico. She’s twisted her hair into a messy bun and used one of his shop rags to wipe her face.

Adam hands her a mug. The sky’s turning to pearly pink and the moon’s faded to a ghost of itself over the ridge and he knows this moment’s going to slip away fast. Velocity wraps both hands around the cup and runs her tongue around the rim before she takes a sip.

“Aah, that’s good.” She sprawls in the lawn chair, legs outstretched. “That’s one thing you don’t get – out there.” She glances at the desert stretching behind the trailer: low creosote and mesquite scrub, and a few big cottonwood trees following the angle of the dry wash off north.

“I imagine not.” Adam follows her gaze.   Across  the wash, the coyotes yip and howl. A shadow crosses Velocity’s face. She’s missing them already. What must it be like, to shed your clothes and your human shape and go running under the moon, eyes blazing and senses on fire with the night?

A moth flitters past Adam’s nose, coming to rest on the screen door. Soft grey wings spread wide, it regards him with blank black insect eyes. For a moment, Adam’s inside its busy little mind, looking out in a dizzying multifaceted way at himself. He shakes his head.

Velocity watches over the rim of the mug. “ You were inside that bug brain, weren’t you.”

Adam blinks. “Damn, that hasn’t happened for a while. Not since that palo verde beetle blew in during a rainstorm. Nearly made me puke. I hate those little shits. Can’t seem to stop ‘em though.”

“You’re Adam Voss, the witchman. Everybody knows that. Seems like you could find a use for ‘em somehow.” Velocity glances at the glow rising over the ridge, and Adam’s heart sinks. “ I got to get back to town,” she says, just as he knows she would. “Charlie Juan’s not comin in this morning. I’ve got no cook; goin to have to do breakfast all by myself.”

She shoots him a sideways smile. “You could come and help.”

Ride with her all the way back to Soledad City? Help her open up the Hummingbird Cafe for its breakfast run? Adam entertains a wild thought of the two of them standing side by side in the kitchen, baking muffins and turning omelets in the pan. Oh hell yeah.

But the sounds of morning traffic and the endless concrete and glass of downtown and the constant stream of people moving, jostling, jabbering on their cell phones … he can feel the panic rising just to think of it.

Velocity sees the change in his face and the smile fades. “Damn. I am so sorry. I was just – I didn’t mean to -”

“No, I know.” Adam takes a swallow of coffee, pushing it past the lump in his throat. “I would – if I could.”

She sets the mug down on the deck. “I know you would.”

Rising, she leans in, swiftly drops a kiss on Adam’s cheek. He smells mesquite and blood and the dry musty scent of desert creatures. “You stay well, you hear me?”   And then she’s off, quickstepping across the stretch of bare desert between his trailer and Holland’s back lot.

There’s a dusty Chevy truck parked behind the cafe. He watches as she gets in and drives away, following her till the truck turns onto the interstate at the top of the on-ramp.

It’s starting to warm up. The voices in his head begin their morning chatter. Feeling empty inside, he gathers up the mugs and starts toward the door. But there’s a sudden sense of eyes on his back and he turns slowly around.

Half hidden in a thicket of creosote a couple of yards away, a coyote stands watching him. Sun gleams silver on its shaggy mane and its eyes are level and golden meeting Adam’s own. A prickle sneaks across the back of his neck, but he stays put for the big male’s once-over.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Silver,” he says. “I’m lookin out for her too.”

In Santa Cruz: A Soledad City Story

 

In Santa Cruz, the border is only a breath away. On summer nights the searchlights of la migra stitch the mountains and the road spins out snakebelly white between Tombstone and Nogales. Taking those empty curves through the grasslands you lean hard on the gas because

 
You’re looking for the Virgin with the cracked feet and the poppy smile. You saw her once, high on a hill: eyeblink glimpse from the back seat of a car bound for Mexico. She was framed in white stone and dead flowers, and offerings of broken dolls and stuffed animals filled the mouth of her cave.

 

You’d thought she vanished under the weight of the years between then and now. But this midnight squirms with nerves and heat lightning and a roadside prayer might cool your fevered soul.  She was somewhere along this two lane. You’ll know her when you see her.

 

South of Patagonia, bats drift against the stars like burned paper.  Your high beams snag a bullet-chopped sign that says Quarantine. In Santa Cruz, rabies always simmers in the blood of the land dwellers.   Cinder-eyed on the fringes of the light,  ibex watch you pass.  They never have rabies.

 

But there’s no Virgin in these parts.  Maybe a mad bat bit her one of these glassy nights. At Lochiel, bronze plaques declare the place a historical site, but you push on. You know the story anyway: doomed boys in blue, cavalrymen dropped by cholera before the Apache ever got close.  They never knew your Virgin anyway. She prays for sorefooted travelers begging with dime store candles and drifters with frayed hearts.

 

She has to be close now. You can trust a hill Maria. She won’t take her broken toes to Nogales where the music fills up the empty spaces in the night.

Up ahead, trees get thick and moths ride the headlights.  You round a skinny curve and river smells rise up around you.  This is it; she’s here.  Cottonwood trees lean on their shadows as you pull over under her hill.   Crowned in white stone she waits in plaster silence while you climb the little path worn down by many feet.

You breathe in the scents of her sanctuary: dying carnations and candlewax and dust.  A ceramic pig and a one-legged doll lie inside her circle.  With no other offering  than your own fractured heart, you wait with them for the mercy she holds in that one chipped eye.

Glitter Girl: To Be Continued?

Glitter GirlblogSo Glitter Girl got a bit of a redesign the other day, with some tweaking on the cover,  new front matter and one key detail in the story.    But the core of the piece, born out of a visit I once paid to Beverly Hills High School when I was teaching in LA, remains the same.  Glitter Girl is all those pretty blondes with fathers in the film and music industries.

The story is told from the viewpoint of someone else, though. The Witchman narrates, and one reader said he didn’t learn enough about the character from his “voice.” Another asked if the Witchman will ever get to  star in another story, so that readers could know more about him.

I’ve been thinking that it might be interesting to follow these characters out of this story into the bigger world of the Moon Road. The Glitter Girl herself has quite a journey ahead as she learns what the spell to turn the heart of some rich empty headed hunk will really cost her.  The Witchman called it right – it isn’t love she wants, it’s power.  Will she really rip the heart out of the hunk and walk away?   She’s a card carrying member of the Mean Girls club, so that’s probably what happens. But I would like to see her come to terms with the magic she has unwittingly taken into herself.

And the Witchman, that battered war veteran hunkering down in the desert where he can be alone with his memories and his magic, seems to me to have a world of stories to tell.  So in the parlance of TV shows, I’m making him a regular.  He now has a name:  Adam Voss.  He also has a backstory of service in the Gulf War, a wound and a meager pension – and witchcraft of the darkest kind.  His narrative crosses a little with that of his fellow wounded warrior in the short story  “Cold Wind.”

Adam will appear in the upcoming Soledad City novel, “A Patch of Cool” when musician on the run Lucas Horne takes a terrifying ride through the desert and a disastrous detour at the truck stop/cafe where Adam lives out back.

Adam also has a bit of history with Velocity, the owner of Cafe Colibri in downtown Soledad City – and a magic creature in her own right.  More on Velocity in upcoming character sketches.

Any thoughts, ideas, storylines you’d like to see?  Drop a comment here or share a thought on Twitter.

 

Black Dog: A Sorrows Hill Story

Bitter air, and owl wings crossing a white harvest moon: a good night, they said, for the wake of a witch, and the Devil coming to claim his own. I stood on the porch, and sniffed the air for brimstone. But not a glimpse of Satan did I see, and so I followed the visitors into my grandfather’s fine old house on the side of Hart Mountain.
The people from town wore gracious black and mouths pinched up like peach pits, and the darting of their eyes said it was fear not love that brought them here to pay respects. Who’d pass up the chance to say they saw Joss Merchant dead?
Or to stare and point at Mama and me. Back and forth in that cold house, you could hear the old folks whispering: how Joss Merchant turned crookbacked from his ugly magics, shaking hands with Old Scratch late of a winter evening; how lightning from an open sky took him, just like that, in that upstairs room he had, where the walls were painted red so you couldn’t see the blood.
I ghosted through the dining room, picking up bits of talk like crumbs.
“It’s true! You ask any of the old ‘uns. Devil dogs. Cats. Ravens and such. I even heard tell of a horse once. Creatures come round whenever a witch dies. That’s how you tell, ain’t it?”
“Carlie, that works down to the funeral home — she told me Rev’rend John come by when they was embalmin, asked could they put some cemetery dirt in old Joss’ shoes, to keep his soul down. But don’t say I told you –”
“You think she’ll stay on? The daughter I mean.”
“Joss’ girl and no mistake. Look at her, skirt too short and her mouth too red.”
“What’s it been, twelve, fifteen years since she took off?”
“Look at that little gal — she’s the spittin image of her granddad.”
“Makes you wonder who her father is, don’t it?”
“Old Joss was wicked all right.”

“You think?”

Mama just sat down in the big chair and gave them the cold smile that said she was strong. That crimson smile stayed plastered on her face, even when the preacher lied a prayer to comfort us. Fat man stuffed like a sausage into his shiny black suit: his face gleamed with sweat and his eyes rolled white in his head when he promised us that the deceased was locked in the arms of God.
I waited till the prayer was done, and then I went to have another look at my grandfather.

In the parlor the coffin was laid out, black wood gleaming under the lamps. Grandfather’s head was pillowed on plum-colored satin, and his long white hair spread around him like frost on window glass. On the mantel stood a photograph of him when he was young, with black hair and a hooked hard nose that made me think of hawks, and eyes that seemed to watch me as I walked.
Mama had that black hair and eyes like his, and I took after Mama, people always said. So maybe my nose had a humpback like the nose in the picture, and maybe my cheekbones were high and fierce like his. A harsh face for a girl to have, but tonight it made me proud.
I never knew him, never knew he was alive until the day that he was dead. Mama hauled me out of school that morning and into her old Ford truck, driving fast into the mountains with her face set and hard. And all that she would say was this: your grandfather Josselyn Merchant has departed this world.
Now I wished I’d met him, maybe just once. He didn’t look the kind of grandpa that would cuddle you on his lap and read you stories. But maybe he’d have been the kind who’d tell a girl what kind of trouble kept his own daughter from speaking his name till he was dead. The kind who’d tell a girl what to do with that fierce face she inherited. I tucked myself into the shadows by the door and nibbled on a teacake, as the parade of frigid smiles and taut faces passed me by.
“There you are, dear!” Lavender and paisley, and dry lips smelling of gin: a spindly, ancient woman sprang upon me like a spider, gathering me into her arms. I suffered the hug unmoving, staring past her at the photograph of Joss Merchant in his prime.
“I knew him all his life,” the woman chattered, pulling me sideways into a corner. “If things had been just a little bit different, I’d have been your granny.”
I glanced into the coffin as I passed it, a quick look at that papery cheek with its preservative sheen. The artificial stillness made me shiver. The old woman smiled.
“Ah, Joss, “ she said. “Death won’t keep him down. He always said so.” Her eyes brightened. “Once, when he was so sick he was like to die, he told me, Tabby — for that’s my name, Tabitha McBride — don’t you worry, he said. I’ll go on. Lucifer takes care of his good tools. Look for me in other eyes, he said, for I’ll be there, no matter if this body’s in the ground.” Tabitha McBride beamed at the photograph. “He had magic, Joss did; oh, such magic he made in this house!”
“Who are you?” The teacake was dry in my mouth. She’d known him. Known his magic and his power.
Tabitha gazed hungrily at the cold face in the coffin. “Why, I was his disciple, his acolyte, his slave, when he wanted me to be. I did anything he asked. Even after he married that lowland woman of his. Well, that didn’t last, did it? I took care of her.” She laughed, and the sound of it skittered up my back.

“But that’s neither here nor there. “ One twiggy finger tipped back my chin. Her eyes bored into mine. “You are so like him. Are you the one to hold his soul? Is he there, inside your head?” She leaned in, breath hot on my cheek. “Joss! Joss! Speak to me now!”
The curtains bellied out as if caught in a storm wind, and the lamp on the side table flickered, throwing shadows across the face of my grandfather, so that he seemed to smile. A chill snaked through the room, and in the hallway somebody gasped. There was a heartbeat of silence, and then conversation picked up again, in that hushed strange way people talk around the dead.
I took another look at Tabitha McBride’s mad eyes. Jerking my arm free of her fingers, I bolted for the door. I flung open the door and quickstepped out onto the porch, breathing deep of clean bitter air.
The mountains stood sharp beneath the moon and frost sparkled in the brown leaves along the walk. I hung over the porch rail gasping, my mind a-swim with too much knowledge. My skin prickled with the chill; my neck crawled, like spiders creeping in my hair, and all of a sudden I knew I wasn’t there alone.
Piece of shadow bigger than me, a great black dog with ice white teeth sat on that frosty ground, plain as morning in the light from the parlor window. I stared at him, and he stared back.
A stinging coldness settled all around me, that had nothing at all to do with this October night. I never screamed for Mama, though I was always scared of dogs. I just stood there growing roots, as this great animal scanned me over with a pair of black bright eyes just like the ones in my grandfather’s picture.
Then he grinned, and I could feel his smile all the way through my soul. “Goodbye, Granddad,” I said.
The mist flowed up pearly from the creek bed and faded him clean away.
They never found a footprint. And no one ever had a dog like that.

 

Preacher Said – A Sorrows Hill Story

Preacher said

That humpbacked beast called sin waits just at the edge of sight.

If you turn your back he’s on you

Just like that green slime thing we saw that time on the midnight movie.

Preacher said

You got to pray and pray and pray some more.

Pray for the armor and the sword!  Pray for the strength to prevail!

 

Well I think I saw that old beast out back in Mama’s garden just last evening.

Under the shadows by the willow tree come twilight

I squeezed my eyes up sideways and I saw him, dressed up just like Sunday in Preacher’s tail coat.

Even had a Bible flapping in the wind.

Wrapping arms around Mama

Till Pappy come round the bend in the old post road.

When Lucy’s Ready – A Flash Fiction

When Lucy’s ready

… She’s ready.

None of this slow stepping sweets and roses

Cat dance of attraction:

Forward two back one

While music winds through a still room

And candle flames tremble on wine glasses.

No —

Lucy wants it all:

Hot breath and steamrollers

On the floor where the carpet’s bleached pink

From scrubbing up stains.

Buttons leaping

Whine of ripped silk

Lips burning lips like arrows in the fire

Straight to the heart of it

And windows wide to let the neon in.

When Lucy’s ready

. . . she’s ready for love.

At Mama Silva’s – A Soledad City Story

 

At the tail end of the night
Concrete gets too gritty on your back
And fog blinds the alleys south of Spring Street.
So you creak to your feet
Wrap your greasy blanket round your shoulders
And you slump off to Mama Silva’s.

Catty corner from the mission
Next to the barred up liquor store
She’s open all the time.
Crackheads and knife fights and
Sirens in the the night —
Mama Silva just goes on.

Light from her window full of flowers
Washes down the puddles on the street.
Blue beads clatter at her doorways
And you shiver when you walk on through
Because you’ve been this way before.

Anyhow you shrug off that blanket
Just like a snake shedding skin and you
Step into her forest:
Herbs and incense and heads on the wall
Hanging ferns and the black Virgin
On her table full of candles and the little silver bowl.

You slide into warmth and coffee
And her voice like honey on a not morning.
Scents of cinnamon and juniper
Rustle of wings and whispers in her corners
Sing you off to sleep again. So
When Mama Silva takes her price
You never feel the pain.

 

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