ISSUE 6 · SPRING 2011
These Troubles, Oh No
The damn ocelot was just one of the reasons Glen drank so much. Jenny flexed her claws against the bars of her carrier. Her yellow eyes never left Glen’s face. The hatred he saw there made him wish his crew would hurry back with the beer.
“Settle down,” he told her, “we’ll head out soon enough.”
Jenny didn’t make a sound or look away. Her mouth dropped open in the way it did just before she ripped into a chicken, and she kept flexing her claws.
“That cat hates the hell out of you,” Tim said.
I thought you left, Glen thought.
His dead twin sat next to him on the school’s front steps and dangled his fingers in front of Jenny’s carrier. She flicked her eyes at him once and returned her focus to Glen.
Glen could hear voices: a group of people were coming around the side of the school. Children, from the sound of it.
Tim sat up. A fierce light came into his eyes.
“They’re coming back,” he said.
You should go, Glen told Tim. Nothing’s going to happen and I don’t want you starting anything with these kids.
“They aren’t children,” Tim answered. “And they can see me, so you might as well talk out loud.”
“You should go,” Glen said out loud. “Just fuck off for once.”
Glen was pissed off with Tim; although he knew Tim could already feel it, Glen made a point of pushing the full force of his anger at his brother. Infuriatingly, Tim just smiled. Glen sighed.
He knew asking Tim not to start trouble was useless. He had given up really arguing with his dead twin when they were very young: Glen, a perfectly normal child whose main fault was that he couldn’t stop talking; and Tim, a reasonably cheerful boy—especially since, being dead almost from birth, he couldn’t talk to many people but Glen.
For the past decade or so his brother had only visited Glen in public as a protector, and his arrival at the Barnes Elementary Cultural Festival had unnerved Glen. The idea of something like the mess with those assholes who had tried to carjack him happening at a family event terrified him.
Tim had shown up in the morning, just as Glen was wrestling the animal carriers into the gymnasium where he and the rest of the Science Alive! crew were setting up the ‘South and Central American Jungle Animals’ show, and his presence had ruined Glen’s mood for the entire day.
At the time, Tim had said, “Relax little brother,” and smiled. His smile hadn’t been reassuring at all—the anticipation of a good fight had made his eyes seem too dark, his teeth too bright and sharp. Glen’s stomach had dropped. “I just want to meet them,” he said.
Glen had learned quickly enough, when he passed the Aztec Religion table. The children staffing the table were able to see Tim and talk to him, and that meant trouble. Aside from Glen, the only people who could see Tim were those with faerie blood, supernatural entities who walked like men, and other, more terrible creatures. The only time normal, flesh-and-blood humans could see Tim was if they tried to hurt Glen. Tim couldn’t take physical form except to protect his brother, but if someone as much as put a hand on Glen in anger then Tim was able to make himself known—and he usually did, and he usually overdid it. Growing up as a carny had had its violent moments, and Glen had spent most of his life trying to keep Tim from turning minor scuffles into killing fields.
If the kids could see Tim, they couldn’t be normal, flesh-and-blood humans; and if Tim had shown up just to meet them then they were probably dangerous, whatever they were. Glen didn’t care what they were, and despite the instant liking they had apparently taken to him he didn’t want to see them again. Glen just wanted the rest of his crew to get back from their gas and beer run so he could load up the animals and get the hell away from here. The Science Alive! crew members were irritating, irresponsible college kids but right now he’d be genuinely happy to see them. For about the hundredth time today, Glen regretted not charging his cell phone.
. . .
The children came around the corner of the school. When they saw Glen and Tim on the steps, they all started grinning and laughing.
Well, at least it’s only five of them, not the whole gang, Glen told Tim.
“These are the worst of the batch,” Tim answered.
“Don’t you forget it,” said Xolo. He was a dark-skinned boy, big for his age and easily the most exuberant of the group. An astonishingly ugly black dog loped alongside Xolo, offering everyone in sight a foul-smelling doggy grin.
“You’re still here! I knew you would be.” Toci, a tiny girl of four or five with serious eyes, ran up the stairs and poked at Jenny’s carrier.
“She bites,” Glen said.
“She won’t bite me.”
Three of the other kids followed Toci up the steps, arranging themselves around Glen and Tim: Macuil, a smallish tomboy; the unnervingly lovely Xochi; and Xipe, a lanky boy with skin that seemed to glow. The dog flopped down on the sidewalk and closed its eyes while Xolo went to the side of the steps and peered into the animal carriers.
“Don’t mess with them,” Glen said.
“They won’t bite me,” Xolo answered.
“Well, we’re getting ready to leave. So . . . ”
“You’re waiting for those other guys?” Toci asked.
“That’s right,” Glen said. “As soon as they bring the van back, I’ve gotta go.”
“They won’t be back,” Toci said. “Not for a while.”
“No, they’re just getting gas and some beers for later.”
“I made my cousins give them some bud,” Xochi said, “a bunch of it. They won’t be thinking about you for a while.”
Tim straightened. Glen could feel him buzzing with anticipation, waiting for one of the children to act.
“Why would you do that?” Glen asked.
“You were too busy with the animals before,” Toci said. “We wanted to talk to you some more.”
Glen looked at Jenny, and she flexed her claws back at him. He wanted these kids to go away, but he couldn’t help it—his entire life, he’d had a compulsion to talk, to interact, with anyone who was interested.
“About what?” he asked.
Toci leaned over Jenny’s carrier and said, “Tell us a story.”
Glen laughed. “What?”
“Stories are important. Real people know how to tell stories, and you seem like a real person to us. But we have to know for sure.”
“Glen,” said Tim. “Don’t.”
Xolo smiled at Tim. “Hey, gringo, you’re pretty smart for a dead guy.”
Tim glared back. “This is your school. He’s your guest. You should start.”
“We’re not telling you anything,” said Xolo.
“Good,” said Tim. “Don’t gift him—just take. With the first word of his tale, I can rid the world of all of you.”
“Tim!” Glen was horrified; Tim always acted on his warnings. When Glen yelled at him later, he’d just say: Hey, I tried to tell them.
“What are you doing? You can’t hurt these kids just because I talk to them!”
“They asked for a story, little brother. Words are power. If they get a tale out of you before offering their own, they can use it later to charm you or harm you.” Tim glowered at Toci. “You want my brother’s story? Tiny monster, ask again.”
The other children fidgeted, but Toci remained serene.
“The animal man is our guest, and we must gift him,” she said. “Who will begin?”
“I will,” Xipe stood.
Six children were brought to America in a box. I don’t know where they came from. I mean, I know where I came from. It was a nice place in the jungle with monkeys in the trees and old cities smashed into the hills. But I don’t know where the other five children came from. Some place regular, like me, I guess. They all mostly talked right and they had living eyes, almost like real people.
This happened before we came to America: Coyote took all six of us to a small city in the jungle. We lived in that small city for a while, in a children’s home that smelled funny but not bad. There were lots of children there. We were all picked up in sacks or put in cars or whatever and brought there, and we had to wait in the children’s home for new families.
The lady who ran the children’s home smelled okay and she gave us food and sweets sometimes, but she used different voices when she talked to different people and her eyes weren’t alive like they should be. She brought people in nice clothes to us and then sometimes a child would go away with a new family.
A long time happened. When new families came, these six children (including me) stayed and stayed. I don’t know why.
After another long time, the lady running the children’s home sold the children who kept staying. The other five got sold first. They came back, and she sold them again, and they came back again. I didn’t understand but then she sold me too. The man who bought me wanted to sex me. I didn’t want sex with him. He was smelly and he had dead eyes. I bit him and bit him but I was too little to hurt him very much with my teeth. He still tried to sex me. I pulled off my skin and he didn’t want to sex me any more so he threw me away. I put my skin on and then I went back to the children’s home because I couldn’t think where else to go. That jungle city was small, but the people there were angry and they had dead eyes and they all smelled bad and most of them talked wrong. The children’s home would just sell me again but maybe I would want to sex the next man more. When I got back the other children who had come back had been sold and were already back again.
The lady who ran the home looked at the six children (including me) and said, “Oh no, no, these terrible troubles,” in her most wrong voice.
She put us in a box and gave us to Coyote. This wasn’t the same coyote, it was a different one, and I think this one was probably part fox too because he lied all the time, just like Fox. But he was still Coyote.
Coyote took the box of children into the desert wilds, in a place where there was nothing except dried-up cactus and hopping mice and little brown bugs who didn’t talk right, and left us there. Another animal came and took us into a desert city. I don’t know what kind of animal it was because I was a little dead already.
It was a snake, said Xochi, or maybe a lizard. I remember, even though I wasn’t there. It wasn’t a water animal, or a flying one. It wasn’t a bug or a germ, and it wasn’t a big, slow lizard like the ones that live near the river. It was Tiny Lizard. Or Snake.
That’s right, Xipe said, Xochi remembers everything she doesn’t see. I bet it was Tiny Lizard; his meat’s dry and bitter and we weren’t that hungry yet (even though we were very hungry). We’d have eaten the one who took us to that desert city if he were Snake.
So I was already a little dead, but the other five children were even more dead. We were all going a little crazy from listening to those little brown bugs talking talking talking in their wrong voices and ugly language. We were in that wild desert for so long!
That trip to the desert city took a long time and I knew we were all going to be all the way dead before we got there.
Because the other children were even deader than me, I pulled off my skin for them to eat. They were very hungry so they ate it all. Then I went to sleep. When I woke up Tiny Lizard was gone and we were in the desert city. I could hear people-in-the-street noises and some right talk and some wrong talk. I looked out of the box. It was dark and I smelled cat piss and rats and cars and old dry beer. Where we were, it was a space between buildings. The buildings were old and grimy. Up high in one of the windows I could see colored lights and shadow people walking around. It was an okay place to die, so I lay down in the box and went all the way dead.
I forgot to say, the other children were dead for a couple of days already by then.
So the cats came and pissed on us and they shat everywhere, and some old food got thrown away and leaked into our box and the rats ate parts of it and they shat everywhere and some of them died with us there in the box.
So we were all dead in this box, and here we were with all of this decaying food and rat bodies and all of this filth. We were all together: a box full of rare and beautiful rot and shit.
Then a white lady came into the space between the buildings. She said, “Oh no, no, these terrible smells.” Her talk was wrong but her voice was a good one. We all listened to hear what she would say next.
She walked in the space for a while, groaning and complaining. Even though her talk was wrong, it was nice to hear such a good voice. Then she opened the box and she wailed and screamed and yelled for help.
That was the best part.
After people-running-near-us noises started, she looked at the box again and she was crying. Sad crying! For us! We all listened to hear what she would do next.
Other people came. A lot of them. They crowded the lady away. A lot of cars with colored lights came. Everybody was talking and we couldn’t hear what the lady was saying any more, but the wind there was kind and pushed the noise of her crying to us.
Hands pulled us out of the box and it was hard to keep every child’s parts where they were supposed to go. Some of them dripped away, I think. We didn’t pay much attention because we were waiting to hear what the lady would do next.
Some of us were put on a bed in the street. The wind brought the lady’s voice to us: “Oh no, no, poor children, poor babies, oh no, no, please be alive, please be alive.”
So we did.
Everybody there was scared for a while and there were doctors for a long time.
There are a lot of long times in this story, said Xolo. You aren’t old enough to have so many “long times” in your story.
Of course it doesn’t add up right, Xipe said. There were all of those long times and more. I didn’t put in all of the long times because otherwise the story goes until my voice hurts, but if you put them all together they come out right.
So after we all were alive again there were doctors for a long time. And everybody was scared. But after the dripped-away parts grew back and after my skin came in, they weren’t so scared. And the lady who found us made a new family with the two girls. That just left us four boys. Two of them went back to their families, but us other two didn’t have any place to go.
I wanted to find Tiny Lizard and pull off his skin, to make him die in my place so I wouldn’t have to be dead again for a long time. But before I could do that some people took me away to make a new family with them here. They said, “You’re in America now.”
So that’s how I knew I was in America.
I was a little sad that they wouldn’t let me go find Tiny Lizard. I didn’t like being dead very much. But next time maybe I will like it better.
So then I came here where nobody talks right except a few people. And there was a lady. She didn’t talk right either but she tried. She looked like the lady who ran the children’s home in that small jungle city. Her skin was lighter though. Also her voice was good and she had living eyes, like real people.
My friends were here too.
We didn’t come in the box though, said Toci.
That’s right, you came here last, said Macuil. And then we ate her.
Yes, Xipe said. That’s right, you were all here already.
The lady we met: she had a good voice and she could see us—see our living souls. So we ate her. We made her a real person.
When I first met this lady, she shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you,” and that’s how I know she liked me best. After I pulled off her skin and ate it all I got to eat the heart.
And that’s how I came to Detroit. The important parts, anyway.
“You go next, Xochi.”
“Okay,” said Xochi.
Water, Roses, Iris Eyes
We didn’t always live here. We used to live in another place, next to the desert. There was never enough water, and we always had to share it.
The best thing about America is that there’s water all over the place. I never have to share it if I don’t want to. The worst thing about America is that when you do share water with somebody, they never appreciate it. Not really, unless they came from a desert place too; then you can tell they know what it means if you let them have a sip.
So our family lived in this desert place, and we were always thirsty. Also there weren’t very many flowers there, and I really like flowers. So our family had to come to a place with more water (and more flowers). We could have gone to the jungle but America was closer.
The only interesting thing that happened on the way here was: we went with a group of people, all strangers. I slept well every night when we traveled in the empty desert because I kept dreaming about all of the water and the flowers we were going to see.
So there’s plenty of water here, and that’s okay. I was glad when I thought I wouldn’t be thirsty any more, but that isn’t what happened. I was born thirsty and I was so thirsty the whole time I was little. And you know what? You can get water any time you want it here, and I’m still always thirsty. I can never have enough water.
People here who never had to live in a desert city, they don’t know what it means when I give them a sip. If they knew they’d kiss me and tell me “thank you” and really, really mean it.
I also thought America had flowers everywhere. If you watch TV or movies about America you’ll see them all over the place.
But just look at this city.
People here are busy or they’re angry and they don’t know how to make their flowers happy so those flowers just go: okay, guess you don’t really want us here. And they die right away.
There are roses in every alley and sunflowers burn up the summer. But the roses are dirty and they die the next day, and the sunflowers spend all their time looking at the sky and don’t notice anyone else at all.
The iris man on the corner is the only person I’ve met in this town who knows how to treat his flowers right. Most of his flowers are spoiled, though; because they’re so beautiful and he’s so nice, they’re terrible snobs.
Most yards have dandelions, and they’re funny and tough but I can’t live on dandelions—especially when I’m still so thirsty all the time.
So mostly America has been a big disappointment.
Yeah, we know, said Xolo. You wish you’d never come here, blah blah.
No, Xochi replied, it’s okay that we’re here. I just thought it would be better.
But I almost forgot about the lady! After I met my friends here we found a lady and she had a pin with poppies on it. Every time I saw her she was wearing a flower pin, and she must have had a bunch of those pins because she always wore a different one. And I knew she cared for them because they were right over her heart.
This lady, she had eyes that were blue-and-purple like the iris man’s flowers, but her eyes weren’t snobs at all. And she was mostly nice to us, but not too nice like my parents are to me.
If my parents keep pushing it with all the niceness, I’ll get spoiled for sure.
But the lady talked to us all the time and she was nice but not too nice, and that’s why we knew it was okay to kill her. So then we tore her apart and shared her, and I ate her eyes first. Then I got to eat her heart, because she was special and always wore those flower pins.
So, anyway . . . that’s the story of me and Detroit.
“Okay!” said Macuil, “It’s my turn.”
I Like it Here
You don’t have a coming-here story to tell, Xolo snorted; you were born here.
So what! We did come to America pretty long ago. I’ve always been here, almost. But I remember being so-small and not all the way a person yet. My parents came to America before I was all the way in the world so I could stay here if I wanted to.
And I like it here. There are just enough flowers, and I don’t think it smells funny at all.
That’s just because you were born here, said Xipe. Trust me: it smells funny. I’m starting to get used to it though.
Well, I think it smells fine. But the best part of America is all the fun you can have here. People here love to play games.
I like video games, said Xolo.
Everybody likes video games. People here, though—video games aren’t enough for them. They play board games, card games, tag, everything you can think of and lots of things you can’t even imagine until you’ve seen them.
Everyone here plays games all the time, even the adults. They play pool and cards and bet on things, even more than most places, I bet. Even when they’re doing other things they’re always thinking about games they can play later.
This lady we met, the first time I saw her, she was playing dice in the alley. These four black boys were playing with her and she kept winning. No matter how mad they got, she won and won. I knew right away she was special, but I had to be sure. I asked her if I could play too and she let me! I was even littler then than I am now, and most grownups still don’t let me play games with them. So then I was sure of how special she was.
I won half the time, so that was another sign. This lady was so good at winning, she could have won every throw if she wanted. But she only wanted it about half the time. I could tell that she liked me.
This lady played all kinds of games with us. And we always won about half the time, and the other half she won, except when it was a tie. It wasn’t a tie very much, because that’s boring. It’s way more fun when somebody wins.
I sure did like playing games with that lady. Card games were the best, because she could shuffle them really fast! And sometimes she’d do tricks with the cards for us, like we’d pick one and she’d pretend she couldn’t find it but then she’d find it at the end. One time she found the card because she’d marked it with her fingernail. That’s when I noticed her nails were perfect—they were healthy and shiny and strong, and cracked with good honest work. And when we ate her I took those fingernails first and chomped them up!
After I ate her fingernails I was mostly full, but I made room and ate her heart too. I wasn’t going to at first but with all those games we played together, I knew she liked me best. If someone likes you best it’s rude for you to leave their heart for someone else to eat, so I had to.
I was glad I did, because it was even better than those fingernails.
I like America because there are games everywhere. It’s good we’re in Detroit because when the people here play games, they’re fierce and they cheat and sometimes after the games they get into fights.
Okay. I’m done.
“I’ll go next,” said Toci.
I Am Still Myself
I came with my cousins on a bus. My parents were already here.
I was tiny then, but I was already myself. We have almost-white cousins who had a tiny baby, like me, and they already lived here. They came to get me and told everybody I was her. That made me angry, because even though I was tiny I knew I wasn’t Lupe. I was myself, Toci, and it was bad enough that they were treating me like a baby just because that was how I looked back then. They didn’t have to talk to me like people talk to babies: like they have no sense and only want their diapers changed.
If they were going to talk to me like that, they should have just put the radio on instead.
Back then, when people bothered me I would try to tell them, but it either came out as crying or like ba-ba-ma-ma, and then they would pretend not to understand. I hated that, let me tell you.
Even now, I’m pretty tiny. But I’m still myself. People who forget that are going to wish they didn’t.
So we got here and I was happy to see my parents again. I met Lupe and she was just a baby. She’s my cousin but she isn’t one of us, so she doesn’t really matter.
After a while I got bigger. I wasn’t as big as I am now when I met the lady—I was still pretty small—but she always talked to me like I am, not like I look. The very first time I saw her, she asked me for directions to someplace else and she didn’t even say “little girl” after it.
Of course she got it right: she was a special lady. She wasn’t a real person yet, but she still mattered.
It wasn’t too long before it was time to kill her. That made me a little sad, because I would have liked to be friends with her when I was bigger. But I’m me no matter what size I am, so it was mostly okay.
When it was time to kill her, I was the one who cut out her heart. I was pretty tiny back then, but if someone talks to you right it’s important to show the proper respect back to them—so even though it was hard, I had to do it.
I knew she liked me best when I cut out her heart and it was still beating. So I ate it. That heart made me so full! That was the only part of her I ate, but that was okay. The rest of these kids finished the rest of her so there were no leftovers.
After I ate that lady’s heart I was even more myself than before. Under all of these streets and new buildings I can see Old Detroit . . . even with everything that’s been done to it, this city is still itself too. So I’m glad my parents had my almost-white cousins bring me here, even if they did talk to me like I was a baby and called me after someone who doesn’t matter.
I’ll stay here until I’m done getting bigger, and then I’ll go out into the rest of America. This is a good city but I think other places might be better. If they’re not, I’ll come back here to stay. I’d like to find a place that knows me when it sees me but that doesn’t really matter, because I’ll still be myself anywhere I go.
Now you go, Xolo.
“Finally!” Xolo jumped up to tell his story. The whole time Xolo talked, he walked back and forth and acted things out. The dog sat up but didn’t move from his spot on the sidewalk. He kept his eyes on the boy for the whole story.
Me and That Lady and Max
Okay: first of all, we’ve always lived here. My whole family, even my uncles. We’ve always lived here, all the way back to my grandfather. My brother and me, we were born here and so were all of our uncles’ kids.
This isn’t really about how I came to this city. It’s more about me and that lady and Max.
I can’t help it: I like dogs. I always liked dogs and I thought nobody could like them more than me. Then I met this lady. She loved dogs. She loved everybody, whether they were dogs or not.
When I first saw her, she was just waiting at the bus stop with a bottle in a bag. I’ve seen that before, so I didn’t pay attention at first. But when I looked back at her, she smiled. So I remembered her, even though I didn’t think she was very important.
For a long time there was this angry dog on our street. I got to know him pretty well. He was an old guy, and had bite marks and missing parts all over his body.
He hated the world, and he was out to make sure the world knew it. When people put their trash out he’d knock the cans over and throw everything in them all over the street. If you had something disgusting in your trash, he’d wipe chunks of it on your front steps and then run around the whole block with it just to stink up the neighborhood. People called Animal Control but they couldn’t catch him, so what could we do? The whole street just had to put up with him.
This dog, he hated everybody, and I mean everybody. He would run up just to bite you and if you smacked him he didn’t even care.
I like dogs, but I used to smack the hell out of that old guy. He was so angry that it made me angry just to look at him. If he wasn’t smearing filth on the houses he was pissing on the cars or biting people or complaining. It got so bad I’d want to smack the person next to me if I even saw that dog.
The second time I saw that lady, she was coming out of the liquor store. She had a bottle in a bag again, and she smiled at me so I would see her. Not in a sex way, like most ladies with bottles on that street: she wanted me to see she was real.
I saw her, all right, and I saw that angry old dog too. He was stretched out in the gutter like he was dead but his one eye was watching her. It was a trick he used when he was feeling lazy, to get people to come close enough so he could bite them.
That lady went over, all right, but she didn’t fall for his trick. She stood just far back enough that his lazy self would have to stand up if he wanted to bite her, and she poured out some her bottle in front of him. Then she walked away.
That angry old dog, he didn’t know what do with himself. I could see that he wanted to lick up that cheap wine, but he was angry because the lady didn’t stick around to get bitten. He pissed on the wine instead, and then he didn’t get to bite her and he didn’t get any wine. So he was even more angry.
This dog, he decided he was gonna bite the hell out of that lady the next time he saw her. So he waited by the liquor store. She came back about an hour later, and he growled and jumped at her and it looked like he was going to rip her in a thousand pieces.
She didn’t run and she didn’t step around him. She just kept walking and she shut the liquor store door in his face. That dog, the only thing he bit was her coat and it was pretty torn up already so she didn’t even notice. She didn’t notice at all!
Boy, he was mad about that!
When she came back out, the bottle was already open. Before that dog could jump on her again, she poured a little wine on the ground by his paws and then walked away, just like before.
This time that dog licked up her wine, and just like that he turned into a regular old dog. After that he followed her everywhere and he even let her tell him his name was ‘Max’. It wasn’t, but since he was a regular dog now his new name was Max.
Well, I was pretty ashamed of myself. Here was somebody who liked dogs even more than me.
I learned a lot from that lady, starting with how to talk to all kinds of people even if they’re just animals.
When it was time to eat her, the first part I had was her tongue and lips. I knew she liked Max best, but no matter how great the dog is it’s not right to let a dog eat a person’s heart. So I ate it instead.
Now Max follows me around.
“Now you have to tell one,” Xipe told Glen.
“Okay.” Glen settled back. He didn’t lean forward to tell stories, especially true tales. “One day, back when I was working for Charley Cat’s Carnival—”
“You’re not doing it right,” said Toci.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re just talking. You have to tell us a story.”
Glen thought about this for a moment.
“Okay,” he said finally. “I think I know what you mean.”
Charley Cat’s Carnival, Haarken, and Lonely Lorelei
Carnivals used to be full of wondrous, terrible things. But that was a long time ago, and far away from here. It’s rare to see even one really amazing sight these days, even if you go to carnivals all the time.
Charley Cat’s Carnival is different. I worked for Charley Cat for years and years, so I’ve seen plenty of things. I got to see a manticore up close one time, and I’ve met the woman who lights her eyes with the sun.
I’ve done plenty of amazing things, too. I’m not proud of all of them, but I did them just the same. I’ve dipped a babe in a river to stop it running with blood and I’ve helped a wendigeek (that’s a wendigo lush who’ll bite the head off anything for a sip of rum and a nip of warm human flesh) get off the sauce. I closed off a manhole in Kentucky that led to a portal to Hell, and once I rounded up an entire clan of razor-clawed pocket monkeys with my bare hands.
But this story isn’t about any of those things.
Charley Cat ran the cleanest carnival I ever saw—not the legal kind of clean, not one bit. I mean, this was also the most corrupt carnival I ever saw. But Charley Cat’s Carnival was the neatest, best-smelling traveling show on the whole Midwestern run. There was never a straw on the ground that Charley Cat didn’t want there, and the whole carnival smelled like fresh cinnamon bread, even in the animal carriers.
I was in the animal carriers one day and I was just standing around, because this was Charley Cat’s Carnival and so there wasn’t any animal mess to clean up. Not like with this damn ocelot Jenny.
So I’m standing in the animal carrier and sort of kicking the too-clean straw around, and I hear this voice—
You’re doing it again, Toci said.
Sorry, said Glen. I usually just talk. Guess I never learned how to tell stories.
Well, keep trying.
Having nothing to do is more boring than anything, and that warm cinnamon bread smell starts to get to you after a while. I could have really used some elephant crap to clean up right then, let me tell you.
That’s better, said Xolo, but it’s okay to say shit.
Yeah, Toci chimed in, we say shit like shit all the time.
Glen said, I don’t use swears in front of children.
Your brother would swear at us, Xolo said.
Goddamn right, you nasty little shits.
The children laughed. It was a tearing, frightening sound.
Okay, okay, enough, said Glen.
Having nothing to do is more boring than anything and that warm cinnamon bread smell starts to get to you after a while. I could have really used some elephant shit to clean up right then, let me tell you.
The children laughed again. Glen kept going.
Boredom can make you so angry you’ll kick almost anything. There was this little pile of straw and I was ready to give it a kick that would smash it into a million tiny shreds when I heard a voice saying, “don’t kick me, don’t hurt me, you’ll kick me apart.”
It wasn’t a straw mound at all. It was a hedgehog! He said he was on vacation. He’d come a long way . . . hedgehogs aren’t from this country, after all. He was traveling to carnivals all over the United States, looking for a freak show.
I thought he wanted to be in the sideshow—they have talking hedgehogs all over England, but like I said they’re not from around here. Most animals in America don’t talk in ways that most people around here can hear, so if we still had them he’d be perfect for a sideshow.
That’s not what he wanted at all.
This little hedgehog, he liked big girls. Really big girls. He had heard that we had Fat Ladies here on display in our carnivals and he wanted one for his wife.
Poor little hedgehog. We don’t have sideshows in our carnivals any more, haven’t had them for a long time. Carnivals and traveling shows, we still have lots of interesting people—but we don’t put them on display any more like he was talking about.
Poor little hedgehog, he started to cry.
“I’m all alone in the world,” he said. “I tried marrying a lady hedgehog but she didn’t get big enough. I need a big girl, a really big girl, or I’ll never be happy.”
I picked him up so I could look at him face-to-face.
Okay, that was a lie. No matter how much you want to look at someone face-to-face, it’s rude to just pick them up. I got right down on my stomach in that straw so I could look at him face-to-face.
I got down on my belly, and I looked at this poor dumb little hedgehog who was crying because he couldn’t find any Fat Ladies, and I said: “Hey stupid.”
That stopped him crying right away. He puffed up his tiny hedgehog spines, and I knew he meant to stick me. Talking British hedgehogs are small, but they can deal you out some real hurt so I hurried up with what I had to say.
“There are Fat Ladies everywhere here. You’re in America.”
He unpuffed at once. “Right,” he said. “Right . . . I am stupid.”
“I’m Glen,” I said.
“Well, Haarken, let’s find you a wife.”
We walked away from there, and all the way he was talking.
“Not like those touristy ones you’ve got walking around here,” he said. “I’ve seen those, and ugh.”
“No regular townies, right.”
“I like a big girl, the bigger the better, but she needs a sense of fashion. And style. And she should smell good.”
Now I had gotten a whiff of Haarken when I was down on the straw with him, and he was the only thing in that whole animal carrier that smelled like an animal.
“You could use some perfume yourself,” I said. “But if we can get you smelling better, I know just where to take you.”
This town we were in, Charley Cat’s Carnival had been here before. And there was a show woman that Charley Cat had been trying to land, to get her to work for his carnival when it was in town. Charley Cat tried for years to get this woman to work for him, and for years she just said, no.
So I wanted to take him to see Lonely Lorelei. They called her Lonely because she wasn’t—men and women chased her around the town, worse than Charley Cat even—and they called her Lorelei because this lady, she had just about the worst voice you’ve ever heard.
Lonely Lorelei’s voice was like burning shards of glass in your ear. She could sex it up or smooth it out if she wanted, but the thing was, once you’d heard her burning-glass voice you couldn’t stop hearing it. And eventually you’d come to like it. If you listened to her long enough, you’d end up chasing her around the town just like all the other men and women there.
Her voice made your ears want to bleed, but after a time you always wanted more.
I told Haarken: “You can’t get a girl, even a really big girl, if you’re a hedgehog—and especially not if you smell like one. Not around here, anyway.”
“Okay,” he said.
Haarken took me to this motel where he was staying and he pulled off his spines. He stretched and stood up, and he was a man. A naked, shortish, scrawny man with almost no eyebrows and big black eyes.
I thought, oh no.
He went into the bathroom for a minute and when he came back out he smelled better.
There were clothes on the bed and he put them on. He was bald, so he shook out his spines and put them on his head. They turned into hedgehog-spine-colored hair. This isn’t a very good color, but it was better than Bald Haarken.
Then we went to see Lorelei.
She was at her favorite bar. This was a horrible, dark, run-down place. Except for the owner’s supply of hundred-year Scotch, Lonely Lorelei was the only nice thing in the whole place. Haarken went up to her right away.
“You’ll make me the perfect wife,” he said.
“Honey, I am not wife material,” she said. Haarken just smiled.
“You smell funny,” Lorelei told Haarken, “and you don’t have any eyebrows. After all the work I put into mine, I can’t be with a no-eyebrow man.”
“Of course. But I bet they’d grow out for you.”
Lonely Lorelei, she reached over and grabbed that hedgehog man’s hair and twisted it just right. The hair turned back into spines and she pulled them from his head.
“Show me your real face,” she said.
Haarken switched back to a hedgehog. He was tangled up in the man-clothes. Lorelei pulled him up out of the clothes and set him on the bar so she could see him face-to-face. She put his spines back on and held him in the palm of her hand.
“Well, that’s not so bad,” she said. “But I can’t live in a hole in the ground.”
“Of course. I’ll get you a people home.”
“I need a place where people won’t chase me all around the town,” said Lonely Lorelei. “It’ll be hard for me to be a good wife if other people are chasing me all around the town.”
“For every man or woman that chases you around the town, I’ll chase you around the bed twice.”
“Well, that’s not so bad. But I’ll tell you: I used to be something else.”
“Of course. But you’re a lady now. A really big lady.”
Haarken took off his spines and shook them out, and there he was sitting naked on his clothes on the bar. Lonely Lorelei took a good close look but I couldn’t help it, I had to look away. I’d seen all of Haarken once already that day, and I was finished with that.
Haarken started to set his spines upon his head again, but Lorelei said: I like you better bald (I thought Bald Haarken looked like a crazed pirate, but he wasn’t trying to make me his wife so I kept my mouth shut). He stretched and folded his spines instead, and laid them across his chest where they scattered like down.
“Well, that’s not so bad. Get yourself dressed.”
Haarken grinned at Lonely Lorelei and got into his clothes faster than fast.
“Okay,” said Haarken. “You need to come and be my wife now.”
Lonely Lorelei stood up over crazed-pirate, scrawny, shortish Haarken. Her shadow covered him, the bar stool next to him, and a good part of the bar and the hundred-year Scotch besides.
“Hurry up,” she said. “The courthouse closes soon.”
Haarken grabbed a hundred-year Scotch bottle in one hand and Lonely Lorelei in the other and they left that bar. I went to witness the wedding.
For their vows, Haarken told her: “You know, your voice is truly horrible.”
“You’re short,” she answered, “and you smell funny. We’ll have to work hard at this to make it good.”
“Of course,” said Haarken.
“That’s just one great romance that came about because of Charley Cat,” said Glen, “but those are stories for a different day.”
“Not too bad for your first real story,” said Macuil, “but I thought there’d be more action.”
“I didn’t mind it at all,” Xochi chimed in, “although when you mentioned the wendigeek I did hope he would come up in this story. Your next tale should be about him.”
“I didn’t critique your stories,” Glen complained.
“Naturally,” said Xolo. “Ours were good.”
During this entire exchange, Xipe had been staring at Tim.
“We won’t be fighting the animal man, though,” said Xipe. “Ghost-Twin, I think your story is the important one.”
Tim smiled. Xipe watched him calmly, his amber-rimmed black eyes impassive.
“I don’t tell stories, godling . . . but sometimes, I answer questions.”
Xipe leaned forward.
This one should suit you better; it has more blood, after all.
“When did you die?” Xipe asked Tim.
“At the exact second of my birth. When my head came out, I opened my eyes and breathed right away. My only breath in brought my death, and my only breath out blew away my life.”
“Why didn’t the animal man die?”
“He was sensible enough to keep his eyes and mouth closed until he was all the way born. He’s careful and smart like that.”
“After you died, why did you stay?”
“The children who die in the place where I was born don’t move on if they would leave behind anything they love. They stay, and protect it. You and your once-family should have gathered in my birthplace, little godling. Then there would be a battle fierce enough even for you . . . but I’ll do my best, even on my own.”
“What will you do, after we’ve eaten your brother?”
“Whoa!” Glen jumped up. “Where did that come from?”
“It’s okay,” said Xolo, “we wouldn’t eat you if we didn’t respect you.”
“Yes,” added Toci, “we like you a lot. You should be a real person.”
“Relax, little brother,” said Tim. “These little biters won’t taste you.” He smiled; under the fluorescents his teeth looked sharper than Glen had ever seen them.
“What will you do?”
“Your question can’t be answered, because that will not happen. But this is fun . . . ask another.”
“If we don’t eat your brother, will you step aside and let us go out into the world?”
“Because you and your once-family will consume everything you see. Glen loves the world as it is, even when he hates it, and I would not have my little brother live in a world that has been eaten.”
“So when we are grown, and go out into the world . . . ?”
“That question cannot be answered.”
“Because it’s too far away for you to say?”
“Because you will never be grown.”
“I wish I were older,” Xolo said to Xipe, “so I could just get rid of this annoying ghost.”
“I am no ghost,” Tim replied. “I am no pale and whining spirit chained to a decaying building or plowed-under graveyard. I am a protector, and you cannot stand against me.
“I choose to guard my brother and the things he loves. For now, you are small and your nature is hidden; but when it emerges you will take your first real step into the world. I will be there when that happens, and I will make sure that first step ends your lives as quickly and completely as my first breath ended mine.”
“Bullshit,” said Xipe.
“Filthy little godling,” Tim grinned, “shut your nasty mouth.”
Xipe stood up. Tim ran his tongue over his teeth. Glen flinched as Xipe’s face opened and thin, razored flaps peeled away from his cheek. Xipe slapped his hand to his face, and blood poured out from between his fingers. He didn’t cry out, but sat down and glowered at Tim.
Glen held out his hands. “Enough,” he said. “I don’t care what you think they will become. Right now, they are children.”
“They are not.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Glen snapped.
“I think your story was good enough,” said Toci.
“I’m sure of it: you’re a real person already. We won’t eat you.”
“What—you—you do understand that you were never going to eat me, right? I mean, there’s no way in hell I would allow that.”
Tim, just stop talking.
“Well, now we’re really not going to eat you,” said Xolo. “Toci’s right. We can’t eat someone who’s already a real person.”
“How did you suddenly decide I’m a real person, whatever that is? I mean, of course I am—but half an hour ago you were, what, planning to eat me like that lady?”
“You know what we are, even if you don’t realize it yet,” Xipe said patiently, looking at his bloody hand. “And you treat us with respect.”
“I just yelled at you.”
“Yes. Like you would any child—but instead of treating us like little tiny nobody kids, you speak openly. Like you would to family.”
Do you understand any of this? Glen asked Tim.
I think so, Tim answered. Glen was surprised; Tim always responded out loud. He could feel Tim’s growing concern. They won’t attack your body . . . they’ve decided that they want you.
Your soul. That is what they’ll have from you now.
Well, they can’t have it.
But . . . ?
But. This will be a much more difficult fight, little brother.
“It’s rude not to speak aloud.”
Glen’s attention returned to the children. He didn’t know which one had spoken; it could have been any of them. Five pairs of black eyes were narrowed at him; five faces—one still bleeding—were turned his way.
Glen said, “I’m done with this.” He nodded toward Xochi. “Give me your cell phone. Mine’s dead.”
“How do you know I even have one?”
“You said your parents spoil you, so I’m just assuming. Hand it over so I can call my boss.”
“You won’t need it,” said Toci.
“The hell I won’t. I’m getting somebody over here so I can go home.”
“Your friends are coming back,” Toci replied. Glen looked down the street, and found she was right. The Science Alive! van was just pulling through the light at the end of the block. It was moving slowly; it was obvious that whoever was driving was still high and being overly cautious as a result.
“Good,” Glen jumped off the steps and picked up three of the smaller carriers as the van carefully edged up to the curb. “Goodbye.”
“We’ll help you load the carriers,” said Xolo.
“I can’t let you handle the animals.”
“They won’t bite us.”
Al and David stepped out of the van. David pulled the dolly out of the back seat. Shit-eating grins were spread across both of their faces. Kaitlin was sitting behind the wheel and staring out the window.
“We forgot the beer,” Al said. He and Dave started laughing.
“Just get the damn carriers.” Glen set his three carriers in the back and turned around. Xipe and Xolo were behind him, carrying the huge caiman carrier between them. Glen grabbed it away from them. The three girls came up, carrying small bird and lizard carriers. Glen glared down at them as they set the carriers on the floor of the van.
The moment she was left alone, Jenny began to complain, yowling at the top of her voice. Max hid behind Xolo.
David and Al loaded the dolly with the carriers next to the steps. Al picked up the last monkey carrier and they returned to the van.
“Your dog is ugly, little guy,” Al told Xolo.
“You too, loser.”
“You forgot Jenny,” Glen snapped.
Al and David started to laugh again. “I’m not dealing with that cat, man,” Al said.
“Jesus Christ,” Glen muttered. He strode to the school steps and picked up Jenny’s carrier. She quieted when he approached, but when he grasped the handle she immediately began to throw herself back and forth in the carrier. As he set her carrier in the van, she tried again to reach him with her claws.
David and Al had finished loading the other animal carriers and were climbing into the back seat. Glen opened the driver’s side door. Kaitlin scooted over to the passenger seat without a word.
The children left. The boys and Maci, followed closely by Max, crossed in front the van. Toci and Xochi walked up the street. Glen watched them go and turned the key in the ignition.
So are you coming, or are you going to stay and pick on these creepy kids some more? Glen asked Tim.
We’ll meet up later, Tim answered. We have to talk.
Glen pulled the van up next to the two girls. “Hey Toci,” he called, “Jenny seems to like you. Can you tell her to lay off me? Tell her I’m a real person.”
“She knows,” said Toci, “and she says you can fuck off anyway.” She waved, and she and Xochi raced up the street.
“You guys are assholes,” Glen told his co-workers. “When we get back to Science Alive! you’re unloading all of these animals, starting with Jenny. But first we’re stopping for some fucking beers.”
Dora Badger is a comedian and web designer living in Detroit. She is organizer of a long-running writers’ group in Metro Detroit, was one of the first editors for Third Reader, and was the fiction copyeditor for Sonar4 Ezine. “These Troubles, Oh No” is an excerpt from Excellent Deer, a novel in progress. Her other stories have appeared at www.microhorror.com and in the anthology Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror (2009).