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the Refrigerator Light – “Draw your sword” – One Long Swallow – Something’s Up –

The refrigerator light as he opens the door shines dimly on her there in the saggy blue chair in the corner, curled up in a long pink T-shirt, her book in one hand, a finger keeping her place, the flimsy balloon of a wineglass in the other. “Hart and hive, girl,” he growls. “You spooked me.”

“Agravante woke me,” says Marfisa. “I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

“Sleep can’t stand me,” he says, closing the refrigerator. He’s leaning most of his weight on a black-handled blue metal four-legged cane. “Been at each other’s throat for years.” He shuffle-clomps over to the counter, reaching for a light switch. Halogen spots under the upper cabinets flash to life. “Can’t remember who started it. But a lovely girl like you? How could sleep resist your charms?” His dressing gown’s a deep rich blue, unbelted over pale blue and pink checked pyjamas.

“There’s plenty enough who can,” she says, lifting the wineglass as if to sip from it, but turning instead to set it on the narrow kitchen desk. “Why should sleep be any different?”

“Troubles of the loins, is it?”

“Of the heart, Grandfather. Please.”

“Ah. Love.” He snorts. “Something we didn’t have in our day. Never saw the use of it. Now beauty? Oh!” Both hands on his cane he tips his head back wizened face lit up by a beatific smile, ivory hair a wild crown. “Why once I razed the towers of Heigh Pareval and salted the foundations of her walls because her Queen thought to keep her three most beautiful boys from the eyes of the world.” His shaggy brows come together and his smile droops, his eyes look away as his bobbing head begins to shake from side to side. “Or was that your grandmother, rest her teeth? I get confused.”

“You always told us it was Grandmother went a-Viking,” says Marfisa.

“So she did. So she did. And I stayed home to bake the bread.”

“Didn’t you love her, Grandfather?”

“I was bound to her, girl. Ties of toradh. Great weighty chains of obligations first forged when the world was young. And hound and hawk I wanted her, yes, I did, still do. I close my eyes,” and he does so, “and I can see her as I saw her first, the day we met, coming out of the kitchen in my flour-dusted apron, that greatsword in her hands – ” He opens his eyes. “The ache in my bones,” he says. “The ice in my belly. The sight of her like poetry, standing my hair on end.” He pounds his cane against the floor. “Love had nothing to do with it. Leads to sitting around in the dark waiting for someone else to do what needs doing, or so it would seem.” She smiles at that, a little. “Should have bound you over to someone long ago, girl. Removed any uncertainty and doubt. Let you get on with the important things.”

“It would have weakened our position. Agravante’s said so.”

His bobbing head’s shaking again. “There’s not world enough, nor time, for love. Now. I’m going to tell you a secret.” He leans over his cane at her, but he’s smiling at the refrigerator. “There’s a corner of a sheet cake in there. Big blue flowers. I’ll cut you off a slice.”

“Thank you, Grandfather,” says Marfisa.

“It’s terrible,” he says with great delight. “The frosting’s nothing but sugar and some awful chemical color cooked up in a lab.”

Jo between her baskets of groceries both hands held up away from herself eyes locked on Orlando there by the freezer full of pizzas his sword in his hands. Neither of them’s taken a step. Two whole aisles between them. “If I don’t,” says Jo, “then what, I automatically lose? Forfeit or something? All my offices become yours, is that it?”

“You mistake the situation, girl,” says Orlando. “This is no duel. This is murder.”

Jo takes a step or two back. He doesn’t take a step forward. “Either,” she starts to say, and swallows, and tries again, “either way you get the Princess, right?”

“This isn’t about her.” He resettles his grip on the hilt of his sword. “Tell me something, girl, before I kill you, and tell me true.” He takes a step, just one. “Do you love him?”

“I,” says Jo, as she starts to frown, to shake her head, and taking another step back she carefully says “I already answered that question.”

“Not to me you haven’t,” says Orlando.

“Yes!” cries Jo, her voice ringing in the empty supermarket. “Yes! I love him! I miss him! I’m,” and she’s interrupted by a sudden hitching sob of a breath, “I’m very fucking sorry. Like I already. Fucking. Said. What do I get, this time? My groceries? That it?”

“Do you pity him?” says Orlando, the hilt of his sword rattling in his hands.

“What?” says Jo.

“Do you pity him? Because of his leg?”

“His leg? I don’t – ”

“His leg! That you broke on the hunt so that now he must limp like a beaten dog.” Two steps, his arms going up and back, the blade like a beam over his head. “Do you pity him? Is that why you love him?”

“I’m not talking about the Duke,” says Jo, her voice gone quiet.

“I am.”

“I don’t love the Duke,” says Jo.

“Liar.” He brings the blade down before him pointing with the slight curve of it toward the tip. “Do not think to talk your way out of this.”

“Why should I,” she says. “One cut, and you’re done for.”

“So here we are,” he says. “Draw your sword.”

“Yeah,” says Jo. “About that.” Glancing over her shoulder. The stairs behind her, the switchback of the access ramp, the doors outside filled with blank black night.

“You won’t make it, girl,” says Orlando.

“Probably not,” says Jo, and she starts running. To the side. Down the aisle. Toward the back of the store.

Orlando bare feet padding swiftly blade swung up above his head past the empty aisle the abandoned baskets of groceries around the corner to see Jo halfway down its length before the shelves turning her arm whipping up and out and again, blue cans flying at him one two. He sidesteps ducks head canted and a third’s spinning through the air right at him. He brings his blade down in a short swift chop. Two halves of the can spinning away to either side, top and bottom clattering against shelves falling a spill of black beans spattering the floor. Jo’s running away down the aisle turning at the end of it.

Backpedalling Orlando his white shirt splashed with purple at the front of the supermarket again past the abandoned baskets of groceries peering down the next aisle over. No sign of Jo. He stands unmoving eyes closed head tipped down, listening, his blade in both hands held before him. Away down the aisles a squeak, a clank. A pat, pat of footsteps, slow and careful. He opens his eyes, looks to one side, the stairs, the access ramp. To the other, the deli counter, the Starbucks counter, more doors blank and black. “You can’t wait me out,” he calls, and then quickly bare feet whispering he’s off down the aisle.

She’s crouched at the end of it climbing to her feet as he comes around the corner and she flings another can at him and he swings a spray of tomatoes over his head can-top and bottom clanging away and as she turns to run back up the aisle she throws one more can from the clutch in her arm and he twists his followthrough torquing his blade to slice sideways at it. It’s a longer can than the others, skinnier, wobbling as it spins at him, a yellow plastic cap on one end.

There’s a loud whoomp and a clattering crash of falling cans and jars and maybe shelves and a bellow of rage and pain. Jo’s up the next aisle over, looking back, setting the cans she’s carrying back on the shelf, another blue can of beans, a red can of tomatoes, and another longer, skinnier can, topped by a yellow plastic cap. Easy Off Oven Cleaner, says the label. Heavy Duty. Contents under pressure. “Question number two,” she mutters to herself. “What’s around you, asshole.” Music’s coming from unseen speakers up among the struts and ducts, Ray-hey, ey, Uncle Ray! Scanner’s bleeping at the checkstand, security guard’s looking about as she bursts from the aisle, running along the front of the store toward the stairs. “Hey!” he hollers.

“He’s got a sword!” yells Jo. “Something exploded!”

“Shit,” says the guard, looking down the aisle, hand going to the club at his hip, looking back toward her, but she’s already up the stairs and through the doors.

Laughing she opens the door to the apartment. “Jo?” she calls, standing there in the little hallway kitchen. She’s holding a manila envelope in one hand. “Jo!” Out in the main room on the glass-topped café table three candles unlit. Before them the small glass jar, half-filled. She plants a kiss on the envelope and drops it on the kitchen counter.

In the bathroom water’s filling the sink. She’s standing before the mirror looking herself in the eye. She shuts off the faucet, dips her hands in the water, splashes her face, wincing. Runs wet hands through her hair, pulling it back, tight against her skull. Her lips unpainted a thin straight line. Her eyes blink once. She lets go of her hair and scoops up more water, splashing her face again, gasping, then grabs the hem of her tank top and lifts it over her head. She carefully plucks the grip from the gold pin piercing her navel and sets it crystal glimmering on the edge of the sink. She peels off her yoga pants and leaves them on the floor by the toilet.

She doesn’t turn on the boom box.

She relights the candles, puts the matches back on the kitchen counter, shuts off the light in the main room. Stands before the table head bowed a moment in the flickering warm light. “All right then,” she says, opening her eyes. She take up the jar and unscrews its cap, setting it on the table, lifting the jar to her nose. Her face settles into such a contented sigh. “Oh,” she breathes, and “wow.” She lifts the jar and nods to the windows before her filled with the lights of the city at night, then turns to her right, lifting the jar and nodding to the wall over the futon, its collage of post cards and scraps of paper, scribbled post-it notes and pages ripped from magazines. She turns to face the wall behind her, lifting the jar and nodding to the blond wood armoire, the clothing littering the floor, then turns to her left, lifting the jar and nodding to the bathroom door and the little hallway kitchen and the door to the hallway beyond. “What’s freely given,” she says, quietly but clearly, “I freely give. The price of it’s too dear if licked from thorns.” And lifting the jar to her lips she pours the milky fluid down her throat in one long swallow.

She sways, lips shining –

Slowly turning, she puts the jar back on the table –

A loud clink. Lifting her hand too rapidly away in surprise –

“Whoa,” she says with half a laugh, rolling over to sit up among the tangled blankets on the futon.

Her hand to her chest thumb stroking the notch in her clavicle. She wipes her mouth clean with a finger and one hand on the pillows. She licks her fingertip. Another half laugh, shaking her head, rolling over to sit up among the tangled blankets on the futon. She lifts one leg into the air toes curling and “Oh” she says her hand suddenly on her belly her belly rippling like water under a sudden gust of wind.

Climbing to her feet she stumbles over the black spear-haft on the floor stretching beneath the table arms out to catch herself she rolls over with a half laugh in the tangled blankets on the futon groaning, clutching her stomach shaking like sand after heavy footsteps.

“Whoa,” she says, her laugh a wetly hacking bubbling cough. Letting go of herself slowly, hands on the edge of the futon now. “First step’s a doozy.” She pushes forward to climb to her feet when her belly roils like a sack full of snakes and her groan’s through gritted teeth. Rolling over in the tangled blankets on the futon on her hands and knees as something yellow and wet spurts from her mouth strings of it clinging to her lips. “Oh no” she says in a small weak voice, clutching her clenching gut until bucking suddenly she heaves up a gout of vomit white and wet and tinged with yellow and red, slickly shining in the candlelight slopping over the blankets, another wash of it spattering the wall with clusters of tiny pearly curds. She lies there on her side her breath gone quick and shallow. “Help,” she says so quiet, and then she folds over herself like a kick and tumbles from the futon to the floor.

“This is all terribly basic and very well as far as it goes,” says Mr. Charlock, digging with chopsticks for a piece of pork. “Divinational time is orthogonal to pseudo-time, sure.” Beside him Mr. Keightlinger’s chewing a bite of egg-salad sandwich, his elbows up on the steering wheel. “What they don’t seem to appreciate, thinking of the apex of what they call vertical time as some synchronous slice of the godhead,” he takes a pull from a bottle of soda and sticks it back between his knees, “anyway, thing they don’t seem to understand is, you’ve made it, you’re swanning about where everything just is in perfect harmony and synchronous bliss, well great, but you still haven’t solved the fucking problem of nirvana, that one eternal unanswerable question: what happens next?”

“Nothing,” says Mr. Keightlinger, thoughtfully plucking a shred of greasy lettuce from his beard.

“Nothing! Nothing fucking happens there! Because it’s all happy and perfect and as it should be and you don’t want anything and you don’t need anything, because bliss is instantaneously everywhere, so nothing ever changes. Nothing happens. You are. Effectively. Dead. There’s a reason they call it heavenly.” Mr. Charlock pulls a half-eaten egg roll from a paper sack. “And I don’t know about you, but dead is the last thing I want.”

“I would have to agree,” says Mr. Keightlinger, popping a potato chip into his mouth.

Mr. Charlock taps his temple with the chopsticks. “Fuck enlightenment. I like having fallen from stuffy old perfect grace, being locked up in this box of bone, quote unquote trapped in this ugly old world where I want things and need things and get to fucking do things. Where things change. You know there’s a reason Western civilization took over the fucking world. We harnessed that shit. We gotta see what happens next.”

“Lights out,” says Mr. Keightlinger, setting what’s left of his sandwich on the dashboard.

“Really?” says Mr. Charlock, scrunching down to peer up through the windshield at a fourth-floor window of the building opposite. “I dunno. Looks like she’s got candles going in there. She got something on the side with somebody in the building?”

“You’d know.”

“Christ, don’t remind me. Just tell me, again, why we aren’t up there snatching her right the hell now.”

“Observe,” says Mr. Keightlinger, scooping the last bits of chip from the bag. “Do not engage.”

“He wants the Princess in December, why’s he hire us in June? The hell? She is up there, alone, utterly and completely naked, not even a fucking dreamcatcher on the wall, her bodyguard stormed off who the hell knows where, I bet she hasn’t even locked the goddamn door. Ripe and ready and this could be over in five minutes none the wiser, but we gotta sit on our tuches and observe and not fucking engage.” Mr. Charlock sets his carton on the dashboard chopsticks clattering. “Something’s up. Can’t you feel it?” He lifts his feet up to the seat squatting up and twisting over the back of it. “Whole tight thing, back of your neck?”

“Where are you going?” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“To check it out,” says Mr. Charlock, climbing into the back seat.

“Mr. Charlock,” says Mr. Keightlinger, leaning abruptly to avoid one of Mr. Charlock’s kicking black wingtips.

“Keep your tie knotted,” says Mr. Charlock, lying down across the seat. “I ain’t engaging. Just observing more closely. Fuck tha thirteen-twenty, right? Twelve-sixty forever.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“What’s endearing is you think I do,” says Mr. Charlock, closing his eyes. “Wakka-ding-hoy.” He folds his hands on his chest.

Mr. Keightlinger picks up the soda bottle Mr. Charlock left on the floorboard. He takes a swig. Rubs the back of his neck. “Tight?” he says. “You feel anything? Whoops. Heads up.” He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a pair of classic black sunglasses. The left lens covered with spidery words written in white ink. He puts them on. Outside across the street in the rain Jo’s running past, stumbling to a stop at the doors to the lobby of the building holding onto the handle, throwing back her head to whoop with delight as she hauls the door open. Mr. Keightlinger purses his lips, leaning down a little, looking up through the sunglasses from Jo crossing the glass-walled lobby toward the elevator along the building above. He whistles softly. “Mr. Charlock?” He leans back. “Mr. Charlock.” Mr. Charlock moans. “Wake up, Mr. Charlock,” says Mr. Keightlinger. Mr. Charlock’s hands have come unclasped and wave about before his face. His eyes still closed. “Whole building’s ringing,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “You’d best come back.”

Mr. Charlock begins to scream. Mr. Keightlinger opens his door with a sharp popping squonk as Mr. Charlock arches his back heels drumming as Mr. Keightlinger climbs out of the car and leans his seat forward to shove his way through grabbing Mr. Charlock by the shoulders. Mr. Charlock’s voice scraping out of his throat as Mr. Keightlinger swings his big arm in that narrow space to slap him, hard, and again. The scream cuts off.

“You all here?” says Mr. Keightlinger, rain plopping on his broad black-suited back.

“Anybody,” says Mr. Charlock, and he coughs, “this side of the river the least bit sensitive’s gonna have such the headache tomorrow.” His hands up to either side of his face he brings them down staring at the darkness spotting his fingertips. “Wow,” he says. “I never bled from my ears before.”

Table of Contents

Uncle Ray” written by Stuart Davis, copyright holder unknown.

M.E.Traylor    14 August 2010    #

Every time one of the “neighbors” references something of long-ago and f--rytale-like, I wonder if it’s drawing from existing mythology. Sometimes it feels Greek, or castle-European. Sometimes I look it up, but I never find anything, and I don’t know if it’s because you’re building your own mythology and giving it that feel (which is awesome), or if it’s just that far off my literary radar (also cool).

Orlando may be bat-shit-crazy, but I love him. I am dying to know what the link between the milky-gold blood and the owr is, and the link between the owr and the neighbors. The Charlock/Keightlinger scenes are becoming much clearer for me, and I’m really curious about Charlock’s abilities.

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