Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chapter 7


Johnny wanted to answer her, but the mist—if it could still be called that—was thick over his mouth.  It was more like the consistency of jelly now, or vaseline: gooey on his bare skin, and cold and damp through his worn jeans.  It covered his eyes as well; looking at Larissa now was like staring through curved glass that had some sort of greasy film on it.  But sight and touch were still dulled slightly, as were his other three senses (or seven, if Larissa was right, which she generally was).  This strange new, otherworldly sense had peaked, and it was receding now, but there was still enough of it left to make his normal senses seem diminshed.  He tried to hold on to it, knew that he needed to do one last thing, and knew that he didn’t know what it was.  Maybe he could sense the answer, the same way he had known what to do with the mist ...

He stepped back.  Not with his body, exactly; more like with his being.  And as he stepped back, the mist, or gel, or whatever it was—still retaining the rough human shape it had acquired from being spread over his body—was ejected forward, and now there were two figures in the box.  Johnny shook his head, feeling woozy, and stumbled backward.  The cardboard box was now a bit crowded with two of them standing in it, and Johnny tripped over the side behind him and half stepped, half fell out of the box.  Catching himself with one hand, and now keenly feeling the cold air on his bare skin, he looked up at the figure still in the box.  It was completely clothed (unlike himself), and even had gloves.  A wide-brimmed hat kept the face and neck in shadow.  It seemed to be a man, but it was difficult to tell, as the clothing seemed lumpy in odd places.  There were two tiny glints that must have been light reflecting off eyes—the bare light bulb was very close above the figure’s head, so that almost made sense, although there was no reason the brim of the hat, large as it was, should keep the face pooled in that much shadow.  When it spoke, the voice was raspy, like ripping paper.

“What day is it?” it asked.

Johnny just stared.  Larissa spoke cautiously, unsure who or what she was addressing.  “It’s Tuesday.”

“What day of the month?” it asked, more sharply.

Johnny shook his head and looked at Larissa again.

“September the 10th,” said Larissa.

The figure flexed its workman’s gloves.  “I’m early,” it rasped.  It stepped out of the box and turned to look at Johnny.  “Thank you,” it said.  “For bringing me through.”  Johnny tried to extricate himself from the box with little success.  He looked up at the strange, misshapen figure.  Its shirt was cornflower blue.  Its pants were denim coveralls.  Its shoes were crinkled black boots turned down at the tops.  Johnny stared at it in fascination.  The figure turned to glance briefly at Larissa, then strode down the alley.  When it reached the sidewalk, it turned left and was lost from view.

section break

Johnny was still on the ground, with one bare foot in the cardboard box and one arm behind him holding himself up off the ground.  “That was ...”  Johnny trailed off.  There was no reasonable way to complete this sentence.  Larissa stood, staring at the end of the alleyway with her lips just barely parted, as if frozen in the act of one of her diatribes.  For several seconds, no one moved.

Larissa closed her mouth and turned back to Johnny.  Weirdly, her eyes held no surprise, or fear, or even curiosity.  She just studied Johnny, as she always did, but he began to feel uncomfortable.  “Um, yeah,” he floundered.  “Maybe I should ...”  Abruptly a shiver coursed through his body.

“You’re cold,” Larissa pointed out.

Johnny wasn’t sure that was the ultimate source of the shiver, but Larissa wasn’t wrong either.  Late summer it might be, but it was night, and there was a September breeze kicking.  He disentangled himself from the box and began to put his socks and shoes back on.

Suddenly the ambient light dimmed a bit.  Johnny looked up, confused.  Larissa turned back to the mouth of the alley, which was now pitch dark for some reason.  There was a huge snort from that direction, half cranky old steam engine and half large hoofed herbivore.  Johnny froze, his laces pulled tight.  From the corner of his eye he saw Larissa’s head twitch.  But his focus was on the darkness that had swallowed their only exit back to the real world, the world where matronly whiskey-swilling old ladies might know more about you than was strictly logical and white-clad street preachers might grab your head and make freaky pronouncements and your whole unchanging life might seem more like a weird dream, but the real world nonetheless, where you did not cover yourself in mist and spit out bizarre otherworldly travelers.  That world now seemed very far away indeed.

Suddenly there were twin beams of red light in the darkness, and a heavy, sharp metallic click.  The red lights grew brighter, swinging back and forth, and the metallic click was repeated.  Whatever it was, it was advancing.

And then, the sound, coming from far away.  At first, it seemed like a police siren, a very familiar, comfortable sound, but then it fell when it should have risen, or perhaps rose when it should have fallen, and the real and the unreal abruptly diverged.  This was not the howl of a responding black-and-white, oh no.  This was the howl of an honest-to-god wolf, a huge beast with a deep barrel chest, and the sound carried the mournful wail of a deep winter wind embedded inside it, so that Johnny knew this was a white wolf, a great white wolf with ice-blue eyes, standing on a hillside overlooking his domain while the snowflakes eddied and swirled all around him ...

The red lights swung around and disappeared, and there was a profusion of clicks and another great snort.  The lonely, wintry howl was repeated, perhaps a bit closer this time, and there was a squeal from the end of the alley, a whine of clear frustration that was again partly mechanical and partly organic, with just a hint of heavy grunt at the end, and suddenly they could see the street again.  A couple walked past the end of the alley, holding hands.  They unconsciously huddled closer together when passing the opening on their right, as non-street-people usually did.  It was such a slice of ordinary human life that Johnny almost became convinced that he had just suffered an elaborate hallucination.  He turned to Larissa in confusion, his hands still holding his laces taut.

Larissa spoke rapidly but very cripsly.  “I think,” she said, “it is time to leave now.”

Johnny snatched at his remaining clothes on the ground.  “Fuckin’ A and hell yeah to that, sister.”

They fled.


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