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08
Mar
10

Old Clerks Don’t Die – Chapter 2

I apologize for again being late.  I have no one to blame but myself this time.

For anyone who’s become a fan of my stuff through this blog, I would like to point out that my new non-AS universe story collection Machina is now available for pre-order from M-Brane SF.  The official release date isn’t for another month, but now is your chance to get it early.

Thanks as always for reading!

Derek J. Goodman


Old Clerks Don’t Die, They Slay Away

Chapter 2


Gloria sometimes wondered if quitting the OneStop had been a good idea.  Neither of her jobs at the time had been glamorous, but the OneStop at least was considered “respectable.”  Her other job, even in a place like the Hill, where taboos were few and far between, was still something people looked down on.  But she had made her choice, and even if she was sometimes treated like even less of a person than she had been at the convenience store (which was really saying something), she at least made a hell of a lot more money by showing men her breasts.

As her last song ended, Gloria stooped to grab her tear-away bra from the stage and gathered up the assorted dollar bills strewn around the brass pole.  She took a closer look at one of the bills, realized it was a five, and then gave an appreciative nod to the man in a backwards cap at the edge of the stage who had given it to her.  The man, Carl, winked and clapped for her as she stepped off the stage.  Carl was a regular, and one of the better tippers.  Gloria usually took it as a good sign when he showed up at the Sin Depot.  Carl was a necromancer, and if he had lots of money to burn then that meant he had just done some really big job.  And when a necromancer did a big job that meant more undead walking around, which in turn made lots of people nervous, mundy or not.  Nervous people did their best to forget their troubles, and one of the ways they did that was by watching people like Gloria strut their stuff.

Natalia walked up to the stairs as Gloria came down.  “Well, how is it so far tonight?” she asked in a thick Russian accent.

Gloria held up her folded wad of bills.  “Looking good.  How about you?  You ready for this?”

Natalia nodded, but the poor girl shook visibly.  This was going to be her first time stripping.  She’d gone through a lot, though, so Gloria didn’t think going topless in front of a bunch of strange men would be any worse.  This was, after all, a girl who had been the subject of grizzly post-Cold War genetics experiments.  She looked beautiful, though, despite what Natalia might think of herself.  Her pale skin blended in almost perfectly with her short white skirt and white top.  The outfit was lined in gold thread, giving her every appearance of an angel.  Of course, that might have less to do with the costume and more to do with the giant white wings protruding from her back.

Most of the men and women watching the stage didn’t care that Natalia had wings, unless there were a few of them who were specifically turned on by it.  Strange things were common in this neighborhood.  The Sin Depot had certain girls, ones who could blend in like Gloria, that worked both before and after the sun set, but once darkness came on the Hill, girls like Natalia took the stage.  There were two more girls on the other stages right now.  One, Kimberly, gave every appearance of being a normal human like Gloria, but the other, Ginger, had partially changed herself into a cat.  Ginger worked most nights unless there was a full moon, since she had less control over her cat form then and had a tendency to go into heat.  Hancock wouldn’t let her anywhere near the customers when she was like that.  He made damned sure that everything at the Sin Depot stayed above board and legal, but the things an in-heat were-cat might do in the privacy of a lap dance booth came too close to prostitution.  There would be none of that here.

After putting her bra back on, Gloria strolled over to the bar and ordered a jack and coke before pulling out a cigarette from the pack tucked in her garter belt.  Emily, the girl who’d been quietly working on a crossword puzzle from the stool next to her, looked up at Gloria with a raised eyebrow.

“Whatever happened to you trying to quit?” Emily asked.

“That was last week,” Gloria said.  “I only try to quit smoking every other week.”

Emily shrugged and pulled up the top half of her costume from where it had been slipping down her chest.

“What are you even supposed to be dressed as?” Gloria asked her.  “You look like a cross between a cowgirl and a Japanese schoolgirl.”

“Actually, I think that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.  Hancock suggested it.  He thought it was exactly what a few of the customers would find sexy.”

“I can pretty much guarantee none of the customers care about your clothes.”

“Hey, I’ve got to try something, right?  Especially with Ginger over there tonight.  You know how tough it is to get decent tips when she’s around.  Everyone saves their money for her.”

Gloria took a sip of her drink instead of answering.  She liked Emily okay, but she was always blaming the other girls for her lack of tips.  In truth, the customers virtually ignored her because she danced like she was stuck in tar.

She wasn’t wrong about Ginger being a top earner, though.  Any of the girls who had a sense of the exotic to them tended to make more money.  This was probably the only strip club in the world where girls like that could dance in the open.  The Hill was a haven for all that the rest of the world pretended existed only in dreams and nightmares.  Even the daylight people who tried to ignore what happened to the neighborhood at night- the “mundies,” as they were known- couldn’t deny that there was just something off about the neighborhood.  No one knew why, although there were plenty of implausible theories.

“Carl’s in tonight,” Gloria said.  “You want some extra cash, I’m sure you can talk him into a lap dance.”

Emily shrugged.  She appeared far more interested in the crossword puzzle than making any money.

“You hear any interesting word on the street yet for tonight?” Gloria asked.  Emily looked at her, appeared to think for a second, then set her crossword puzzle down on the bar and leaned closer to Gloria.

“Have you talked to Hancock at all since you got here?” Emily asked.

Gloria shook her head.  “No.  Kind of weird, too.  On a night with this many customers he’s usually walking around making sure everything is running totally smooth.”

“I know.  I saw him for a second.  He was reeeeally flustered looking.  Going from his office to the front counter and back, really quick-like.  I’ve never seen the guy look so much like he was on a caffeine buzz.”

Gloria nodded.  That was weird.  Hancock was the sort of guy that never rushed anything, a really laid-back person.  Even when he got angry, it was the kind of fuming anger that stayed just below the surface.  “No clue what that’s about?” she asked.

Emily started to shrug, then cocked her head.  “No… well, maybe.  Something else- Hannah never showed up tonight.”

Gloria took a long drag on her cigarette, thinking.  Hannah Stein was a really quiet girl, not usually spending much time with any of the other dancers.  If she had a good reason not to show up, she wouldn’t have bothered telling anyone.  But there were rumors about her lifestyle.  She spent more than she could afford.  The gossip was she was behind on payments for her Mustang and her credit cards were maxed out.  She was even a bit of an amateur mad scientist, supposedly reanimating stitched together corpses every time there was a lightning storm.  That kind of equipment didn’t come cheap.  On a busy night like tonight, Hannah would have wanted to be here to make all the money she could.

“You think the two things are related?” Gloria asked.

“Don’t know,” Emily said.  She rolled up her crossword book and stood up.  “I’ve got to get going though.  I’ll be up in about five minutes.”

Gloria finished her drink and cigarette, turning on her stool to watch Natalia’s performance.  She was very awkward on stage, and her wings got in the way when she tried to do anything more complicated on the pole than swing around it, but she was still beautiful.  She already had a good pile of dollars building at the edge of the stage.  She seemed like she would be all right in the long run.  Gloria was happy for the girl.  She and her boyfriend Caleb had been the ones to help her out of her previous bad situation.  Gloria knew there were plenty of people who would say stripping at a seedy dive on the Hill still counted as a bad situation, but those sanctimonious assholes could go screw themselves.

She stubbed out her cigarette in the nearest ashtray and got up to go back to the dressing rooms.  It sounded to her like there might be some trouble going on tonight, and she wanted to check her supplies and make sure she had come prepared.

Gloria knew she wasn’t the only one who kept “supplies” with her wherever she went on the Hill, but she was one of the few who took some joy in it.  The duffel bag Gloria had stashed in the back was full of pretty common items for the Hill, things like stakes and silver and holy water.  Those were simply this neighborhood’s equivalent of mace.  Muggers were as common here as in any other rough section of the city, but here they were just as likely to be a vampire or were-something as they were a human.  Gloria, however, went beyond the simple necessities.  She kept things for even more bizarre occurrences, since she had the habit of seeking the bizarre out and trying to help wherever she could.  She supposed one could consider that her hobby.  Some people did crossword puzzles or crocheted.  Some people reanimated stitched together corpses.  Then there were the few, like Gloria, who spent all there extra time as freelance beastie-bashers and helped the helpless.  What could she say?  It was fun.

That was another thing that hadn’t been so bad about the OneStop, she supposed.  She never would have taken up monster-hunting (although that wasn’t a really good term for it, considering the so-called “monsters” were just as likely to need a hand as anyone else; just because they were different didn’t mean they did not just want to go about with their lives), if it hadn’t been for the brief months she’d worked at the convenience store.  That was where she had first realized things hid in the shadows when nobody was looking.  That was also where she had learned that all of those things, good or bad, were just as prone to late night munchies as anyone else.  The OneStop, being at the heart of the Hill, had often been the last place the beasties went before trying to destroy or take over the world.  The apocalypse had nearly happened several times a month.  Gloria had her mundy-cherry broken very quickly there, and she had never looked back.

That had also been where she had met her current boyfriend.  Caleb had been a clerk at the OneStop for a long time before Gloria had shown up, and he was still a clerk now.  Being at the OneStop meant he got paid to do what Gloria did for fun, but to him it was just part of the job.  At first he’d been nothing more than a friend at best, an annoyance at worst.  Her opinion had changed over time.  The man who had at first struck her as unambitious now seemed to her like more of a survivor, making it through life with what he’d been given.  Despite his insufferably snarky tone, she’d slowly fallen for him.

The fact that they had been forced into bed together by a cursed Rubik’s Cube might have helped their relationship along, though.

Even though Gloria still practiced her hobby alone most of the time, Caleb had still become a big part of her nightly excursions.  Sometimes he would come along with her when he wasn’t on at the OneStop, but usually he opted out, saying that was too much like work.  He was still a key source of information, however, especially when he was at the store.  She would have to give him a call and ask him if there was anything going on she should know about.

There were a couple other girls in the dressing room getting into their next change of outfit before they got on stage, but most were out in the main room, getting drinks or smoking or trying to talk a few guys into the lap dance booths.  Gloria went over to the lockers and started to put her combination into her lock, but she stopped when she looked back at the door and saw Hannah walk in.

Gloria turned and approached her.  “Hey, Hannah, where’ve you been?  Some of us were worried…”  She stopped when two very large men followed Hannah in.  There weren’t supposed to be any men allowed in the dressing room, not even Hancock.  If he needed official business taken care of while girls were in here, he sent in his assistant manager.  Even people who took their clothes off for a living needed a private place, and Hancock respected that.

Gloria was going to chastise the two men for violating this sacred principle, but she stopped before any words left her mouth.  Something was very, very wrong here.  Hannah was dressed in a suit- a very expensive one, from the look of it.  Gloria might not have known the girl too well, but she was pretty sure Hannah was not a suit person.  She was more likely to come dressed in a designer lab coat.  She also wore sunglasses, which were pretty useless to people who only came out at night.  The two men also looked off, like they were slightly out of proportion.  Each was well over six feet, and their skin appeared stretched over their faces, like there was something underneath straining to get out.

Both the other girls looked at the trio that had entered the room and they left, completely ignoring whatever makeup or costume changes they needed to finish.  Gloria didn’t blame them.  It was obvious to her that the men weren’t human, and while that alone wasn’t cause for alarm, Hannah’s demeanor might be.  She stood straight with her hands clasped in front of her, a briefcase clutched in her fingers.  This was not normal for Hannah at all.

“Hannah?” Gloria asked.  “What’s up?”

“You’re Gloria Louisa Alvarez, correct?” Hannah asked.  Her head moved up and down, taking Gloria in, almost scanning her.  Gloria initial reaction was to back away, but she held her ground.  Most of the girls only knew each other by first names and stage names.  Hannah probably shouldn’t have known Gloria’s last name, and she definitely had no way to know her middle name.  Gloria hated her middle name, and she hadn’t even told Caleb.

In a place like the Hill, that led Gloria to only one conclusion.  If Hannah couldn’t know her full name then…

“You’re not Hannah,” Gloria said.

Hannah cocked her head.  “No, but we’ve met.  Very briefly, although not formally.  I would say I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t remember me, but then I do also have something of a reputation.”

Hannah took off her glasses and stared straight at Gloria.  This time she did back away.  Hannah’s doppleganger had eye whites just like anyone else, but instead of irises and pupils there were just glowing red pits.  Only then, Gloria realized Hannah’s skin didn’t fit completely right on her, too tight in some areas while drooping in places it shouldn’t.  These were all the signs of a demon.  Not all demons looked like this, just very special kinds.  And there was only one demon like that of any repute on the Hill.  This could only be Mary McPhisto.

Mary was right.  They had met for one very brief, very chaotic moment in the past, and there had been no formal introductions.  Several months ago there had been another apocalypse.  Normally that was nothing special, but this one had partially been Caleb’s fault.  The problem with failed apocalypses was they tended to leave world-destroying artifacts lying around afterwards.  Caleb had taken to collecting them, leaving them all in one place where a sufficiently ambitious guy bent on making the world a better place had been able to get them all in one fell swoop.  He’d lured the most powerful people on the Hill into one location with the promise of auctioning the items off, although his real plan had been to wipe out everything that made the Hill different.  Gloria, Caleb, and their friend Phil had all been there trying to stop him.  McPhisto, on the other hand, had been there trying to buy her very own world-destroying artifact.

Had the auction been real, Mary McPhisto could have possibly walked away with everything that had been on sale, no matter the price.  She didn’t hide the fact that she had money to burn, although there were many differing rumors about how much.  She didn’t keep a low profile, either.  She owned the Club McPhisto, which was close enough to the edge of the Hill that even clueless mundies went there.  The club had a strict policy that anything non-human had to conceal its true nature within its walls (it also had a no zombie policy, but that was for a different reason entirely), although strange things still happened there.  Those strange things were exactly what made it so popular.  Everyone knew that a night at Club McPhisto would be a night to remember, even though Mary’s bouncers usually had to wipe the memories of the club-goers before they left.

While Mary McPhisto’s true nature might have been unknown in the mundy world, everyone on the Hill knew what she was and kept their distance.  If she wanted to go outside the Hill for business, then Mary needed to look human, but that wasn’t easy for most demons.  Their actual appearance varied depending on the type of demon, but generally they had red or purplish skin, often with horns, scales, or tails.  Some kinds of demons could make themselves look human with the proper illusion spells.  Mary was not that kind of demon.  Illusion spells slid off her body like water.  So in addition to magic, she needed something to physically cover her body.  In short, if she wanted to look human then she needed an actual human’s skin.

Gloria had seen people die on the Hill.  Sometimes it touched her and sometimes it didn’t, depending on the person and the way it happened.  Often she could shrug it off.  She should have been able to shrug it off now.  After all, she hadn’t been very close to Hannah.  No one here had.  But the idea that the girl had actually been skinned so that someone else could now go walking around in it?  For the first time in too long, Gloria had to fight not to puke.

Gloria backed in the direction of her locker.  She had no idea how she could get her weapons out of her locker without McPhisto or her bodyguards stopping her, but she would find a way.  She was going to kill this bitch.

McPhisto chuckled.  “If you’re thinking of doing something rash on Hannah’s account, let me assure you that I came by her skin in a completely legal manner.”

She opened up the briefcase.  There were quite a few papers inside.  McPhisto pulled out one and held it up for Gloria to see.  Gloria took a cautious step closer and looked at the bottom of the sheet.  There was a signature at the bottom that may or may not have been Hannah’s.  It was dated a month ago, and judging from the rust color of the ink, Gloria would guess it was signed in blood.  McPhisto put the paper back in her briefcase before Gloria could see anything else.

“She was having financial problems,” McPhisto said, “and heard that I would be willing to help.”

“And did she know what you would eventually be taking in return?” Gloria asked.

“It is not my fault if she was careless enough to sign without reading thoroughly.  The point is that anything I did to her was completely legal, when taken in context with the right authorities.  So if you get any closer to that locker while I am in your presence, I will consider it right and proper self defense to have my two associates eat every one of your fingers and toes.”

Gloria froze.  If this was anywhere else, that threat could have been nothing but an exaggeration, but Gloria knew better.

“How did you know my full name?” Gloria asked.

McPhisto laughed.  “Honey, you would be extremely surprised to know exactly which people are keeping a close eye on you and your boyfriend.”

“Hey!” someone said from behind Mary’s bodyguards.  “The rules are clear.  No men in the girls’ dressing rooms!”  Hancock pushed past the two guards, but stopped as soon as he saw McPhisto.  “Hannah?  What’s going…  Oh, Mary.  Um, I didn’t know you were here.”

“But you heard I might be coming, I’m sure,” McPhisto said.  She and the bodyguards turned their back to Gloria.  They must have had a lot of confidence in their threat if they didn’t expect Gloria to try something while they weren’t looking.  Unfortunately, Gloria had to admit at the moment that the threat was enough.

“There was some talk,” Hancock said.  He wasn’t a small man, being a little overweight but very tall.  In a fair fight it was possible he could take one of the guards if something happened, but demons rarely fought fair.  He trembled as he spoke, and with good reason.  “Would you like something to drink?  I’m sure that whatever you want to talk about…”

“I’m a busy woman.  I don’t have time to talk,” McPhisto said.  She reached into her briefcase and pulled out the paper that had been on top of the pile.  “I’m only here to give you this.”

“What…”  Hancock took the paper and looked at it, his eyes growing wide.  “This is ridiculous.  You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Please insert a cliché right here about how I never kid, Mr. Hancock.”

“This can’t be legal!” Hancock said.

“I knew that you would think that,” McPhisto said.  She took a large number of papers from the briefcase and handed them to him.  “So I took the liberty of making copies of all the paperwork for you to peruse.  You’ll want to make some phone calls, I’m sure, also have your lawyer look at them.  You’ll find that every possible loophole for you getting out of this has been filled.  From this moment on, you no longer own the Sin Depot.  It belongs to me.”

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15
Feb
10

Apologies

I just want to give my readers an apology.  I had previously stated that Old Clerks Don’t Die, They Slay Away would start appearing here today, but do to technical problems beyond my control, it will be late by at least a week.  Please check in next week, as I anticipate these issues will have cleared up by then.

03
Feb
10

The Devil and Danielle the Fry Cook – Part 2

Hello again, and sorry for again being late.  Here’s the conclusion to last week’s story.  Don’t forget that, if you haven’t already, now would be a good time to purchase a copy of The Apocalypse Shift, since the sequel will be serialized here starting in two weeks.

Enjoy!

Derek J. Goodman

The Devil and Danielle the Fry Cook – Part 2

     At eight o’clock, with two hours to go until closing and the main portion of the dinner rush over with, Carrie knew she should be worried.  Danielle may have been doing slightly better at her duties than normal, but that wasn’t saying much.  Carrie had rearranged everyone’s position tonight to accommodate the extra worker, which had landed Danielle working the drive-thru.  Three times already, Danielle had screwed up the customers’ orders, and despite Carrie’s constant reminders that both their souls depended on her, Danielle seemed to be ringing up orders and counting out change slower than usual.

     The Devil, on the other hand, was the model of a perfect worker.  She worked the front registers where Carrie could keep a close eye on her from the fry station, and Carrie could barely see anything wrong with her.  She was quick, polite to the customers, and even managed to get most of them to super-size their combos.  Under other circumstances Carrie might have even admired the girl.

     If there was any flaw to the Devil’s work, though, it was that Carrie could clearly see how much she hated this.  The Devil managed to keep her smile with each and every customer, but the instant they were gone her smile would disappear.  Carrie could even see how forced that smile was on occasion.  With one man she had asked if he would like fries with that and he had gone off on her for no real reason, getting rather loud as he asked her just how stupid she had to be to not know that of course he wanted fries with that, that he actually worked a real job for a living and after a long day he was hungry, damn it!  People like that came in once in a while, people who thought they were so much better simply because they were on the other side of the counter, but despite some uncontrolled twitching at the edge of her fake smile, the Devil had maintained her cool until the customer left.

     Carrie pondered the incident as she sat in one of the booths and flicked the ashes of her cigarette into a small aluminum ashtray.  She’d been working long enough today that she got a smoke break, and she needed this time to calm her nerves a little.  She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t notice that both Andy and the Devil had disappeared from her immediate sight until the Devil walked up to her booth.

     “Hey boss,” the Devil said without any irony or sarcasm in her voice.  “Think I’ve been here long enough for a smoke break myself?”

     The absolute last thing Carrie needed right now was the Devil sitting next to her and fraying her nerves even more, but what was she going to do, say no to the Devil?  Besides, according to Burger Master policy the Devil really had been working long enough for a short break.  Carrie gestured to the seat across from her and pulled the ashtray to where they could both get at it.  The Devil sat, patted down the pockets of her uniform, grimaced, then looked sheepishly at Carrie.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t suppose I could please bum a cigarette from you?  I wasn’t expecting to be gone from Hell this long today, so I didn’t bring mine.”

     Carrie only hesitated for a moment before giving her one.  The Devil had actually just said “sorry” and “please.”  Whenever Danielle wanted one she was always rude about it.  “Enjoy it while you can,” Carrie said.  “I heard the boss say that all Burger Masters across the country are about to go smoke free.”

     “Yeah,” the Devil said.  “A lot of Hell is like that now, too.  Which is surprising, considering how many people from California are down there.  You’d think they’d allow smoking just to annoy all those health-conscious jackasses.”

     Carrie chuckled as she exhaled a breath of smoke.  “You know, you’re nothing at all like I expected the Devil to be.”

     “And how did you expect the Devil to be?”

     “I don’t know.  Not like you.”

     The Devil looked around to make sure there were no customers watching, then lit her cigarette on a burst of flame from her finger.  “Part of that is probably because you surface people have such weird ideas of what Hell is.” 

     Carrie couldn’t help but lean forward in interest.  “Why?  What do we have wrong?”

     The Devil took a deep drag, then let it out.  “Well, for starters, I’m not the Devil.”

     Carrie raised her eyebrows.  “But I saw what you did earlier, with the horns and hooves and whatever.”

     “Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong.  I am a devil.  I’m just not the Devil.”

     “Okay, I’m confused.”

     “There’s more than one of us,” the devil said.  “All the stuff that you people blame on the Devil, which, by the way is usually not our fault at all, but the stuff that is our fault… You don’t think it’s really possible for just one person to do all of it, do you?”

     “Well, I guess not.  I’ve never really given it much thought.”

     “And you don’t just wake up one day and Bang!  You’re a devil.  You have to work for it.  You want to know why I’m so good at this job you’ve got me doing?  It’s because I had to do this for three hundred years in order to pay for college.  Then, after school, I had to do another hundred years of internship before I earned the right to actually call myself a devil.  Do you have any idea what an internship is like in Hell?  Not pretty.”

     Carrie didn’t realize her jaw had been hanging open until she closed it.  “Wow.  So how long have you been a devil for, then?”

     “A month.”

     “Only a month?  But I thought you said Danielle sold her soul to you last year.”

     “That wasn’t me.  That was my predecessor.  She retired and moved to Antarctica.  I’m still on probation.  And that’s why I’m not going to blow this challenge.”  The devil took a final puff on her cigarette, and then stubbed it out in the ashtray.  “I’m sorry that little waste of flesh dragged you into this, Carrie.  I’m not just saying that.  When I looked into your eyes earlier I saw how hard you’ve been working for your dreams.  But if I lose I’m going to get fired, and there goes my chance at my dreams.”  The devil stood up and started walking back to counter, then stopped and turned back for a moment.  “Still, for what it’s worth, good luck.”

     Carrie finished her cigarette, then immediately started another one.  That last one hadn’t managed to calm her nerves at all.

*    *    *

     With only a few minutes until closing, Carrie was no longer just worried.  She was scared witless.  She paced back and forth in front of the fryers, trying to think of something, anything, that might save her soul at this point.  Andy kept looking at her from where he stood emptying the shake machine for the night, and even though he didn’t have anything to worry about he looked just as nervous as her.  The devil was wiping down trays with a damp rag and putting tray liners on them for the next morning, and despite how sure her success looked about now she would occasionally look back at Carrie with something that may have been anxiety.  Or maybe that wasn’t anxiety at all.  Maybe it was sympathy.

     Danielle, however, was nowhere to be seen.  Carrie glanced quickly around, then noticed the suspicious smell wafting through the air.  Carrie followed the odor towards the back, past the cooler and freezer to the storeroom in the far rear of the store.  Danielle stood in the storeroom doorway smoking something that was most assuredly not a legal cigarette.

     “Danielle!  What the hell are you doing?”

     “Enjoying my last few minutes on earth before I’m dragged down into Hell.  Want some?”

     Carrie grabbed the joint out of her fingers and stomped it out on the floor.  “You’re supposed to be working, dammit!  Both our souls are depending on this!”  She took Danielle by the arm and started dragging her back to the front.

     “What’s the point?” Danielle asked.  “We close in, like, two minutes.  And then it’s over.”

     Both of them were back by the fryers now.  Carrie only barely noticed as the front door of the restaurant opened and a lady with graying hair made her way to the counter.  Under normal circumstances that would have annoyed Carrie to no end.  The store hours were clearly posted for everyone to see, but there was always someone who waited until the last possible moment to come in.  The devil took her place at the register as the woman stood staring up at the menu.

     “It’s not over,” Carrie said.  “After the store is closed there are still things that need to be done.  We’ve got maybe another half-hour.  We can still do this.  But you have to stop being such a damn slacker!”

     “Can I help you, ma’am?” the devil said to the woman.

     “Don’t you go calling me ma’am.  I’m still young enough to be your sister, young lady,” the woman said.

     “We’re still not going to win,” Danielle said.  “So why bother even trying?”

     “Why?” Carrie asked.  “How about because I stood up for you!  I’m going to have my soul eaten by some Hell-beast now because I did what I thought was right.  Don’t you think you owe me at least to do what you can?”

     “What’s on your Burger Master Supreme?” the woman said.

     “Cheese, bacon, onions, tomatoes, and barbecue sauce,” the devil said.

     “Ugh.  That’s disgusting.  What about the Burger Master Deluxe?”

     “That’s a quarter pound hamburger with mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, tomatoes, and lettuce.”

     “I never asked for your help,” Danielle said.  “If you’re screwed, that’s your own fault.”

     “That sounds disgusting, too,” the woman said.  “But I suppose I’m not going to get anything better out of you, am I?  I’ll have the Deluxe thing.”

     “You little frickin…” Carrie started to say.  Then she finally realized what was going on at the counter.  “Oh.  Wait.”

     “Wait?” Danielle said.  “Wait for what?”  She turned to look where Carrie, as well as Andy now, were looking.  Despite the false smile still on the devil’s face, it was obvious how annoyed she was starting to get.  She punched in the woman’s order, then said, “Would you like to make that a combo today?”

     “Just hold your horses and don’t rush me, all right?  I’m still thinking.”  The woman stared at the menu for a few more seconds.  “On second thought, I don’t want the Deluxe.  I want the Supreme.”

     The devil’s smile was no longer so easy to see as she had to void out the order and start over.  “Will that be all then, tonight?”

     The woman looked offended.  “Aren’t you going to ask whether or not I want it as a combo?  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

     The devil had to take a deep breath before she spoke again, but her voice no longer sounded anything close to polite or friendly.  “Would you like to make that a combo?”

     The woman nodded her head.  “No.  That would be way too much food for this late.  But when you make my burger, could you not put on any of that… um… that one topping… I can’t think of it.  The one that doesn’t taste good.”

     The devil just stared at her.  No smile anymore whatsoever.

     “Oh come on, help me jog my memory,” the woman said.  “It’s that one topping… it’s red…”

     “Tomatoes?” the devil offered.

     The woman grunted.  “No.  Do you think I’m stupid?  I know what a tomato is, thank you.  No, that other topping.  It’s runny.”

     “Ketchup?” the devil said.

     “Yes, that’s it.  No ketchup.”

     Carrie felt her heart start to beat faster.  She gestured wordlessly for Andy and Danielle to look at the devil’s hands.  She gripped the sides of the register with so much force that she left dents in the plastic.  Her skin looked like it was trying to go back to its natural red color, but she still fought it.

     “Ma’am,” the devil said in a tone that made it quite obvious that she didn’t care if the woman took offense to the term or not.  “There is no ketchup on the Supreme.  I told you.”

     Carrie put her hands to her mouth.  That was definitely a rude thing to say, but it still wasn’t enough to offset Danielle’s horrible performance.

     The woman narrowed her eyes at the devil.  “And I told you that I didn’t want a Supreme.  I clearly said that I wanted the Deluxe.”

     The devil bit her lip as she voided the order again and re-rang the burger.  “That will be three-sixty-five, then.”

     The woman started to rummage around in her purse.  “I have a coupon for a dollar off.”

     The devil entered the coupon into the register.  “Two-sixty-five.”  The woman handed her the money.  There was no coupon.

     “The coupon?” the devil said.  The woman blinked at her like she was speaking a foreign language.

     “What about it?”

     “You said you had one.”

     “I do.  It’s at home.”

     The devil started voiding out the order again.  There was no hiding the venom in her voice, and Carrie thought she could actually see smoke coming out of her ears.  The scent of brimstone suddenly filled the air, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.  “Three-sixty-five.”

     “But I have a coupon!”

     “You have to have the coupon with you in order for it to work!”

     “No one ever told me that!  If that’s your policy then you should have it posted somewhere!”

     “I can’t give you the coupon price without the coupon.”

     “Where’s your supervisor?  I want to speak to your supervisor!”   The woman raised her voice to a ridiculous level and slammed her fist down on the counter.  “I want my burger for two-sixty-five!  I demand that I get satisfaction!”

     Carrie expected that to be the last straw, that the devil would finally snap and say something nasty to the woman.  But the devil didn’t say anything at all.  Instead she snapped her fingers and set the woman on fire.

     “Holy crap!” Carrie screamed.  “Danielle, grab the fire extinguisher!”  She could barely hear herself over the woman’s cries as she started running back and forth in a panic in front of the register.

     “I don’t know where the fire extinguisher is!” Danielle said.

     “Andy, grab the fire extinguisher!” Carrie said.  He didn’t run for the extinguisher, though.  Instead he grabbed the bucket into which he had been emptying the shake mix.  Carrie turned to the devil who, despite a brief moment of satisfaction on her face after she had snapped her fingers, now looked absolutely horrified at herself.  “Hey,” Carrie screamed at her.  “Put her out!”

     The devil snapped her fingers again and the woman went back to normal.  There was no damage whatsoever to her or her clothes, although her screaming continued for a few seconds more.  The screaming cut short when Andy, already in the process of throwing the bucket, dowsed her in melting chocolate shake.  The woman stood there for several moments, wiping the shake off her face and staring at the four people behind the counter.

     “Well!” the woman said.  “See if I ever eat here again!”  She turned and tried to run out the door, but she ended up slipping twice in the shake on her shoes before she finally made it out.

     The devil sighed.  “Thing is, I know I’m going to see her again.  It’s a little known fact that there’s a special place reserved in Hell for anyone who comes into a restaurant when they’re trying to close.”

     Carrie, Danielle, and Andy were all quiet for several seconds before Danielle spoke.  “So… what does this mean?  Does this mean we win?”

     The devil nodded.  It was such a surprising sight that Carrie almost doubted her eyes, but the devil appeared to be on the edge of tears.  “You win.  I failed to keep my temper, and you and Carrie get to keep your souls.”

     “Yes!”  Danielle pumped her fist into the air and proceeded to do something like a jig past the fryers.  Andy watched as Carrie talked to the devil.

     “So what happens to you, then?” Carrie asked.

     “At best they fire me.  At the worst they continue to employ me but make me clean toilet stalls instead of collect souls.”

     “Why is that the worst?” Carrie asked.  “You’d still have a job.”

     The devil snorted.  “Obviously you’ve never seen a toilet stall in Hell.”  She changed back into her real form, and Carrie couldn’t ignore how surreal it was to see a seven-foot tall demon with a tears streaming down her red cheeks.  Strangely enough, this didn’t seem fair.  Here was someone who had worked hard for something like four hundred years only for all of it to suddenly mean nothing.  In the mean time, Danielle got out of the consequences of her actions all because of a fluke.  Carrie took a deep breath, making sure this was really the decision she wanted to make, then spoke to the devil in a whisper that Danielle couldn’t hear.

     “You know, I really like my soul right where it is.”

     The devil sniffed.  “Huh?  I don’t think I follow you.”

     Carrie shrugged.  “If I were to keep my soul, then maybe… you know… I might not have seen you freak out on that lady.  As the one judging the challenge I might still say that you won.”

     The devil raised her eyebrows.  “Are you serious?  You’d do that for me?  But what about your friend Danielle.”

     “She’s no friend of mine,” Carrie said.  She looked back at Danielle in time to see her pick her nose and then flick what she had found into the nearest fryer.  “And I’m dead serious.  What’s the point of her keeping her soul if she never uses it?”

     The devil wiped away her tears.  “So is it official then?  I win?”

     “Only if it’s official that I keep my soul.”

     “Deal,” the devil said, and her smile returned.  This time it looked genuine.  “Okay, Danielle, time to go.”

     Danielle stopped in the process of reaching for her other nostril.  “What?  No, wait, I won!”

     The devil grabbed Danielle by the arm and pulled her toward the back door.  “Stop squirming.  We’re wasting valuable torture time.”  As she reached the door, the devil turned around and looked at Carrie, gesturing for her to come closer.  “Thank you.  Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”

     “Don’t take this the wrong way,” Carrie said, “but I kind of hope not.”

     “Right,” the devil said.  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  “And don’t worry.  That little slimeball can’t deal worth shit, so you’ll snap out of it sooner than he suspects.”

     “Huh?” Carrie asked.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

     “You will.  And when you do, remember to aim for his soft bits.” 

     The devil nodded at her, gave a smirk to Andy, and then pulled Danielle out screaming into the night.

     Andy narrowed his eyes at Carrie as she approached him and put an arm around his waist.  “What did she say to you?” he asked.

     Carrie shrugged.  “Not a clue.”  Then she smiled at him, following it up with a deep kiss.

The End

(c) 2010 Derek Goodman

18
Jan
10

Spazmatic Magic

Hello, and welcome back again.  An especially big hi and hello to all the new readers who’ve come here over the last week or two from HorrorNews and Rhiannon Frater’s blog.  I hope everyone has been enjoying all the AS stories that have been appearing here, and from what feedback I’ve gotten, people are enjoying it [a side note: please don’t be afraid to leave feedback!]  So with the blog starting to reach a bigger audience, I have this announcement to make:

I’m going to stop putting stories on here.

“Wait, what?” I hear you say.  (Or at least I think I hear you say it.  That might just be the voices again).  “Why would you stop putting stories on the blog, especially since you just got done saying how good things are going?”  Well, really, this blog wasn’t intended to last forever.  I thought it would be cool to write a bunch of extra stories in the AS universe as a way to promote my novel The Apocalypse Shift, and then Dr. Pus from Library of Horror accepted the stories as a collection.  I wrote enough to fill out the collection, but I didn’t want to continue doing this forever.  I wanted to go on to other things. 

But that doesn’t mean this is ending just now.  I still have a month worth of stories to put here on the blog.  After that, weekly updates to this blog will continue.

“Wait, what?” I hear you say again (damned voices.)  “You just said that you were going to stop doing the blog.”

No, I didn’t.  I said I was going to stop, at least for now, doing stories on the blog.  So if I’m not going to be posting stories on my Apocalypse Shift fiction blog, then what am I going to be posting here?

Hmmmmmmm.

In a related matter, if you hadn’t yet, this would be a really good time to buy The Apocalypse Shift from Amazon.  No, really.  Really REALLY.  You should read it before the last story appears here.  You might regret it if you don’t.

So, on to this week’s story.  Thank you for reading!

Derek J. Goodman

Spazmatic Magic

     The Z-Wash Coin Laundry was otherwise empty, so Jackie took off her shirt, decided to take a picture of herself like that with her camera phone, put on another random shirt from her basket, and took another picture, this time with her tongue sticking out while she gave herself bunny ears.  She’d forgotten to bring a book with her and for some reason she couldn’t access Facebook from her phone just now, so she had a lot of time on her hands while she waited for the last of her laundry to dry.  She sat on the folding table for several moments, singing loudly and badly to herself, then jumped back down and started to walk around washers for no particular reason. 

     The apartment building Jackie had lived in for the last couple weeks had its own set of washers and dryers, but all the other students had apparently had the same urge for non-stinky clothes at the same time as her, so she hadn’t been able to get to them all day.  She needed clean clothes for tomorrow, since she thought maybe she might actually attend class for a change, and this place was the only laundromat within walking distance.  When she’d asked around about it people had told her that she probably shouldn’t go here, that it would be much safer if she didn’t leave the building at night, but she hadn’t paid any attention to that.  She wasn’t afraid of anything the neighborhood of the Hill had to throw at her, no matter what strange stories she heard from the other students.  She could defend herself from anyone that might come after her.  If someone attacked, she could just use that jar of pickles she had in her purse.  Several people had seemed weirded out when she said she kept a jar of pickles on her at all times, which of course was exactly the reason she needed to carry them.  But she figured, too, that a pickle jar smashed against a potential rapist’s face would be a pretty good deterrent.

     She was kind of surprised the laundromat had been empty the entire time she’d been in here.  The sign out front said it was open twenty-four hours, but she still thought people would be more likely to come earlier rather than later.  There wasn’t even an attendant or anything to watch over the place.  That didn’t seem professional.  What was to prevent her from just picking up a washer and walking out the door with it?  Other than the fact that a washer weighed a ton, of course.

     After making three and a half circuits around the washers (the half being the point at the end where she had gotten bored with going around and had just crawled over the top of them to get back where she had begun), she went back to her laundry basket and set it on the folding table.  Folding!  That was something she could do.  She didn’t think she had folded anything for a while.  She grabbed three shirts and started folding them together, decided that wasn’t quite how it was supposed to go, then tried folding just one shirt.  She didn’t really like that either, too boring, so she compromised and began folding all her shirts together in groups of two.

     That ended up leaving her with one t-shirt left over by itself, so just so it wouldn’t feel left out, she decided it needed some extra special attention by itself and ripped the tag out from the back of its collar.

     Her phone immediately started to ring, the sound of a cuckoo clock.  She waited until the fifth cuckoo and answered it.

     “Jaydubb’s International House of Awesome,” she said.  “Jaydubb speaking.  Will this be pick up or delivery?”

     There was a moment of quiet on the other end as though the other person didn’t know what to say (which was a common response when she answered the phone), then a deep, crackly voice hissed at her.  “Five hours.”

     Jackie wasn’t used to being confused.  Usually, if she was doing her job, it was everyone around her that ended up puzzled.  “Um, hey there.”

     Again there was a confused pause.  “Hey,” the voice said.  “Five hours.”

     “Five hours to what?”

     “Five hours until you die.”

     Jackie blinked.  “Why the hell would I die in five hours?”

     “You violated the rules.  The laws of nature.  You have offended all of order and chaos throughout the universe.”

     “Really?  That’s cool.  But how did I do that?”

     The voice sounded thoroughly baffled when it spoke again.  Maybe it wasn’t used to people asking so many questions.  From the sound of it, Jackie would guess some people might find the voice scary.  She just found it to be an interesting way to pass the time.

     “You did what you should not,” it said.  “You just did exactly what the tag said not to.”

     “The tag?”  Jackie looked down at the ripped-out shirt tag still in her hand.  “I didn’t machine wash warm?”

     “You ripped it off the shirt!” the voice said.  It sounded exasperated now.  “It clearly says do not remove tag from shirt.  You violated one of the ancient laws of the cosmos!”

     “Oh, okay,” Jackie said.  And she hung up.

     She started to put her phone in her pocket when it rang again.  “Senor Jaydubb’s Fantastic Funk Factory.”

     “Five hours!”

     She hung up again.

     Jackie finished folding the shirt, then sat down in the nearest chair for a rare moment of introspection.  That phone call had been weird.  Normally she just went with the flow with weird stuff, but that had been weirder than usual.  That had been horror movie weird.  And she knew that a smart person couldn’t just ignore horror movie weird. 

     She had been warned that something like this might happen, too.  As much as she didn’t want to ask for help, she supposed that was the only good idea at the moment.

     Jackie pulled the phone out of her pocket again and scrolled through her contacts to the Ws.  After three rings, someone picked up on the other line.

     “Hi, Aunt Wylma?  Remember when you said I should call you if anything strange happened?”

*    *    *

     Wylma twisted the damp rag she’d been using to wipe down the bar in her hands.  The Snake’s Sanctum was slow tonight, as it usually was for a Monday, but there were still too many people in here for her liking.  If Jackie was going to be here soon, Wylma wasn’t sure she wanted the girl to see the crowd Wylma usually served.

     There were only five customers in the bar at the moment, but not all of them could technically be considered humans.  Three of them, two men and a woman, were dressed in white lab coats covered in black leather jackets.  The other two were a chimpanzee that had been implanted with the brain of a Hell’s Angel and a shiny silver robot that had been programmed to only speak in Steppenwolf lyrics.

     Wylma tossed the rag down on the bar.  “Okay, everyone.  Sorry to do this to you, but I’ve got to close down the bar early.”

     The three biker mad scientists mumbled to themselves but started for the door.  The chimpanzee didn’t seem too pleased, though.  “Hey bitch, I ain’t got my drunk on enough yet!”

     Wylma would have whispered some nasty spell at the primate, but thankfully she didn’t need to.  Instead the robot smacked the chimp upside the back of his head.  “Getcher motor running,” the robot said.

     “Hey,” the chimp said.  “Since when did you become the boss a’ me?”

     The robot smacked him again.  “Head out on the highway.”

     Finally the chimp relented and they all left, leaving Wylma alone to turn off the “Open” sign.  Maybe that had been unnecessary given the circumstances, but she still felt better knowing that she would do this without anyone else around as a distraction.  Wylma’s sister had always done everything in her power to keep Jackie away from Wylma, but Wylma had known this day would come.  Part of that had been because Jackie had seemed different ever since she’d been a baby.  Another part had been because, two weeks ago, a glass of beer had told Wylma about tonight.

     Wylma grabbed the nearest semi-clean glass and did a few esoteric hand gestures over it while muttering a simple rhyme.  There was a popping noise as the glass filled with a scotch and soda, although mostly soda.  She wanted to calm her nerves for this, not get drunk.  She also had an unfortunate tendency to give every drink she magiced into existence a lemony flavor, and it would have been a crime to ruin good scotch like that.

     She wondered idly as she drank just how much Jackie really knew about any of this, but she supposed the answer was likely “not much.”  Jackie had always seemed off in her own world, and although she was smart, it was still hard to tell how much she actually paid attention to anything.  Corinne, Jackie’s mother and Wylma’s sister, thought she knew a lot about Wylma’s lifestyle and had forbidden Jackie to ever be a part of it, but Wylma had always thought Jackie would come to her.  The fact that Jackie had chosen to go to a college right on the edge of the Hill, the center of Wylma’s strange world, had only been a confirmation of that.

     Wylma’s niece was about to become a part of this world, one way or another.  But if Jackie approached this the same way she approached everything else, then Wylma didn’t think this would be easy.  Wylma said a few more incantations and made a bottle of aspirin appear on the bar.  It would probably taste like lemons, too, but Wylma would need them anyway.

     Wylma saw Jackie approaching through the window, but Jackie didn’t look too terribly concerned about her situation.  Jackie had explained what had happened over the phone, or had at least tried to in her typical no-attention-span way, and Wylma would have thought that the girl would at least be a little scared.  Instead Jackie looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.  She was much more intent on balancing her full laundry basket on top of her head. 

     Jackie looked genuinely pleased to be here as she opened the door and walked in.  Her curly blonde hair was streaked with purple this week, which clashed completely with her bright yellow t-shirt and flannel pajama pants.  Just the mere sight of the girl was already threatening to give Wylma a headache.

     Wylma popped a few of the aspirin as a preemptive measure.

     “Aunt Wylma!” Jackie said a weirdly macho voice as she set her laundry basket on the nearest table before bounding over to the bar to give Wylma a hug.  Despite the situation, Wylma threw her arms wide and grasped her niece from across the bar.  Even though Corrine had done her best to keep the two of them apart over the years, there was no doubt that they were related.  Wylma noticed that Jackie had at some point drawn smiley faces and rainbows all over her arms in pen, creating an almost mirror image of the cheery Disney tattoos that adorned Wylma’s own arms. 

     “Honey, it’s so good to see you!” Wylma said.  “What have you been up to?”

     “Having my life threatened by a mysterious all crackly voice.  It was awesome.  How about you?”

     Wylma nodded, trying not to show any exasperation.  She knew that others considered her exuberant, but she had nothing on this girl.  Jackie’s personality might make some of what Wylma had to show her a little tougher than usual. 

     “Okay, honey,” Wylma said.  “Tell me exactly what…”

     “Jaydubb.”

     “What?” Wylma asked.

     “Call me Jaydubb.”

     “Why?”

     “Why not?  Hey, I totally got to show you what I can do.”  Before Wylma could say anything more, Jackie reached over the bar and grabbed three salt and pepper shakers.  She started to juggle them, spraying salt and pepper everywhere, but she dropped one after only a few seconds.

     “Just wait, I can do this,” Jackie said as she bent down to grab the lost salt shaker.

     “Jackie, honey…”

     “Jaydubb.”

     “Jaydubb, whatever, you need to focus.  Your life may actually be in serious danger.”

     Jackie gave the shakers a few more throws, then caught them all out of the air, slammed them down on the bar, and plopped onto a bar stool.  “And I’m listening.”

     “Jack… uh, Jaydubb, I don’t think you really understand what’s happening.”

     “So what is happening?  Seriously, those phone calls were freaky.  When I looked at the caller ID, it said the caller was ‘From Hell.’  I totally got a call from a Johnny Depp movie!”

     “Well yes, you… wait, huh?  No.  Okay, hold on.  What I mean is…”

     For the first time since she had entered the bar, Jackie’s voice took on a serious tone.  “You’re a witch, aren’t you?”

     “Why would you say that?”

     “Mom always said things about you.  Mostly I didn’t understand what she was talking about.  But I kind of figured it out.”

     “Actually, no.  I’m not a witch.  I’m a sorceress.  There’s a difference.”

     “And this neighborhood, you live here because it’s… different?  That much I figured out all by my lonesome.”

     “Yes, it is different.  There are things here, lots of scary things.  And from what you told me, it sounds like one of those things has got it in for you now.”

     “But I didn’t do anything, not really.  It was just a stupid clothing tag.”

     “There are rules around here, and you’ve got to be careful about them.  Sometimes the rules are good, like carrying religious jewelry around with you in case you need to ward something off.  Or sometimes the rules are weird and stupid, like not feeding certain creatures after midnight.”

     Jackie’s eyes went wide.  “Ooooh.  So that’s why that weird little cat-dog thing turned into a cocoon when I gave it a candy bar.”

     “You did what?”  Wylma waved a dismissive hand in the air.  “You know what?  Forget about it.  We’ll deal with that later.  For now we have to worry about whatever this thing is that says it wants to kill you.”

     Jackie picked up the shakers and began to juggle them again.

     “Jackie, pay attention!”

     “I’m listening.  And can I call you Shaker from now on?”

     “Why the hell would you call me that?”

     “Because you have salt and pepper shakers in your bar.”

     Wylma picked up the aspirin bottle and held it against her chest, wishing she knew some sort of tranquilizer spell.  She actually knew several, but none she thought were safe enough for her own flesh and blood.

     “So yes, Jackie.  I’m a sorceress, and this neighborhood is very different.  That’s why you’re here, I think.”

     “I thought I was here because of crackly-phone-voice-guy.”

     “Not here specifically at the bar.  Here on the Hill.  Jackie… Jackie, for the love of Cthulhu…”  Wylma snatched the nearest shaker out of the air, causing Jackie to drop the other two.  “Jackie, I think forces have conspired to bring you here for the same reason I ended up here.  I think you’re special.”

     “That’s what my mom always tells me, but I think she means special ed.”

     “Well that’s not what I mean, and I think you know it.  Just focus for a second and tell me: you feel something inside you, don’t you?”

     Jackie leaned on the bar but wouldn’t meet Wylma’s eyes.  “Maybe.  I don’t know.  I used to think everyone felt it.  Just… energy.  Lots and lots of energy.”

     Wylma took Jackie’s hand.  “Hon, I’ve been watching you ever since you were a little girl, even when your mom thought she was keeping me away from you.  And I have to tell you, after all this time, I really think you’ve got a gift for magic.  I think you may be a 37.65.”

     “What the heck is that supposed to mean?”

     “If you really want to save your life right now, and be able to save it again in the future, then you’ll have to learn what it means.  And you’ve got just over four hours to do it.”

*    *    *

     Aunt Wylma had a back office in her bar, but there wasn’t any desk or filing cabinets or anything like Jackie would have expected.  Instead it was bare, except for a circle etched into the floor, pictures of Winnie the Pooh and various Disney princesses pasted on the walls, and a folding table holding something that looked suspiciously like a chemistry set.

     “Is that for you to mix magic potions and stuff?” Jackie asked.

     Wylma blushed.  “Um, yeah.  Something like that.”  Jackie knew she was lying, but she wasn’t interested enough right now to push the subject.  She was excited by what her aunt had just told her, yet she wasn’t completely surprised.  She had always thought there was something more exciting and interesting about herself that the rest of the world wouldn’t acknowledge, and now she had found out she was right.

     “So does this mean I’m going to become a sorceress, too?” Jackie asked.

     “Well, not exactly.”

     “A witch then?  I’m not going to turn all green and warty, am I?”

     “Only certain kinds of witches are green, but no.  You’re not a witch either, really.”

     “So if I’m supposed to use magic but I’m not going to be a witch or a sorceress, then what am I going to be?”

     Wylma smiled.  “You, hon, are going to be a complete and total Spaz.”

     Jackie gave two thumbs up, even though she didn’t have the slightest clue what that meant.

     Wylma looked at the circle on the floor and paced around it as she talked.  “You see, when people talk about magic, they act like there’s only one kind.  But there are many different systems of magic, each one operating under its own rules.  In fact, there are 107.314 kinds that I’m aware of.”

     “How do you get the .314?”

     “Some magic counts for extra, while some don’t equal a whole system.  I guess you could just say that some magic thinks it’s better than other magic.  Some of these magic systems don’t work on the Hill, while a few others only work on the Hill.  It’s all really confusing.”

     “Actually, I don’t think that’s confusing at all.”

     “Really?”

     “No, not really.  I don’t have the slightest clue about anything you’re saying.  So why is the Hill so different to begin with?”

     “Wish I could tell you, hon.  I’ve been trying to figure that out for myself for years.  Every time I ask the beer and the peanuts about it, all they show me is some sort of bird and something that looks like a lizard.”

     Jackie thought about asking how beer and peanuts would know anything, then realized it actually made perfect sense to her.

     “So what kind of magic do you use, Shaker?” Jackie asked.

     “Please don’t call me that.  The kind I can tap into is Metatrastic Magnastimous Magic of Miidoon.  Most people just call it Strange Magic.  It comes from symbols and words arranged in a focusing manner.”

     “I hope that’s not what you think I can do, because I don’t think I can do anything I can’t spell.”

     Wylma moved Jackie to the center of the circle before making a few complicated hand gestures at the floor.  “No, like I said.  You couldn’t be a plain old sorceress.  You’re not a person that could be confined to all the rigid rituals it would require.  You’re a chaotic person.  You thrive on weirdness and anything outside the normal.  Am I right?”

     Jackie responded by pulling a live bullfrog out of her pocket.  “Oh hey, I forgot I had him in there.  Except I must have really forgotten.  I don’t remember putting him in my pocket in the first place.”

     Wylma laughed.  “Jackie, you probably didn’t, although I won’t say it’s not a possibility.  The circle you’re in is part of my own magical system.  It’s supposed to be a way I can protect myself from outside forces when working a particularly complicated spell.  But it’s also keeping any magical energy you give off from getting out.  As long as you stay within that circle, you’re energy will be amplified and will have… well, odd effects.”

     Jackie burped.  It tasted like lawn gnomes.  She wasn’t entirely sure how she knew that.

     “You called me a Spaz,” Jackie said.

     “My own word for it, since there really isn’t a word for what you are.  The magic system you seem to be able to use is sometimes called Spazmatic Magic, or just magic system 37.65.”

     Jackie thought she could feel a difference in the air around her as she stood in the circle.  She rarely drank coffee, since when she did it gave her an excess of energy capable even of annoying herself.  But when she did, this was what it felt like.  There was a tingling feeling on her skin, and she felt jittery.  She jumped up and down in place a few times, but stopped when the floor began to buckle under her and send her higher like a trampoline.

     “Whoa, that’s freaky awesome,” Jackie said.

     Aunt Wylma sighed and put a hand to her temple.  “Please don’t do that.  You see, there are people who can use the same energy as you, but they rarely do.  Know why?”

     “Because my brain feels funny?  I mean, even funnier than normal.”

     “Pretty much,” Wylma said.  “You see, when I call Spazmatic Magic a system, that’s not completely true.  On the scale of magic systems, it only really counts as one third of a system.”

     “But I thought it was number 37.65.  Isn’t that, like, two thirds or something?”

     “Well, yeah, but there’s this really pretentious system right before it on the scale, Awesome Hermetical Magic of Awesomeness, that thinks it should count for one and a third systems.  But that’s beside the point.  Spazmatic Magic doesn’t really have rules.  It’s basically a semi-controlled chaos.  You’ve had it ruling you your whole life without even knowing it.  But actually turning it into something you can use?  That’s difficult.”

     “But I can do it, right?  I can learn to use it before that whatever phone creepy thing comes for me?”  Jackie whistled for no good reason other than it seemed like the thing to do at the moment.  As soon as the note left her mouth, it turned to raspberry jelly and spewed all over Wylma.

     “At this point?” Wylma said as she wiped jelly from her eye.  “I really don’t know.”

*    *    *

     Wylma loved Jackie.  Really she did.  She’d been adorable as a child while Wylma had watched from afar, and she had shown so much promise as she had grown.  And once Wylma had begun to suspect what kind of magic was Jackie’s calling, she’d done everything she could to prepare the girl to use it.

     But right now she felt a terrible urge to run screaming and leave Jackie to her fate.  The girl had zero attention span, and this form of magic, if it could really be called a form at all, was completely unpredictable.  Just how was she supposed to teach the rules to something that didn’t have any rules to begin with?

     They’d practiced in the bar’s back room for several hours, but Wylma only had limited success.  She’d tried to get Jackie to do basic spells, things that should have been child’s play in Wylma’s own form of magic, but every attempt had been messy at best and disastrous at worst.  Wylma had tried to get Jackie to levitate a couple spatulas from the grill, but Jackie had instead turned them into two doughnuts and a woodpecker.  The woodpecker was now somewhere in the bar drilling holes in the wall, but Wylma hadn’t had time to look for it because she’d instead been trying to put out the fires Jackie had started when she’d tried to turn the doughnuts back. 

     The only thing Wylma had been successful in teaching Jackie was how to access her spastic energy without the amplification of the circle, although she wasn’t sure anymore if that was really a success.  That only meant Jackie’s chaotic form of magic was now loosed on the world.

     The time for practicing was over now, though.  If Jackie couldn’t use her abilities in any meaningful way, then that only meant Wylma would have to be the one to protect her.  The best way to do that would be to go back to where this had all started, hopefully to confront whatever force it was that had threatened Jackie’s life.  They walked back to the Z-Wash as quickly as they could, a journey that all by itself hurt Wylma’s head.  Jackie had someone found a way to move while standing still yet stay in one place while walking, and every time Wylma looked over and saw the girl delighting in this, Wylma felt the urge to go back to the bar and get her aspirin again.

     “Hey, Aunt Wylma,” Jackie said as she stood in one place at a speed Wylma could barely keep up with.  “I think I figured something out.”

     Wylma allowed herself a moment of hope.  “Oh?  What’s that?”

     “Knock, knock,” Jackie said, and a hole opened up in front of Wylma.  She had to pinwheel her arms desperately to keep from falling in.

     “Jackie, gods damn it!”

     “Oops, sorry.  That wasn’t what I expected to happen.  Which is exactly what I expected to happen.”

     “Damn it, I really hate this,” Wylma said as she carefully moved around the hole.  It looked deep, and if she strained she thought she could hear people speaking in Mandarin from the bottom.

     “Hate what?” Jackie asked.

     “Spazmatic Magic is just… well, it’s just not a very good form of magic.  It would have been easier if your calling had been voodoo or thaumaturgy or Rowlingian or something like that.”

     “Hey, what do you mean it’s not very good?  I’m thinking it’s pretty effing cool.”

     “Did you really just say ‘effing?'”

     “You know, Mom always talked crap about you because you were different,” Jackie said.  Suddenly her standing in place really did become standing in place, and she had to start walking to catch up with Wylma.  “So why would you think it’s okay to talk crap because I’m different?”

     “Honey, I’m not talking crap about you,” Wylma said.  “I’m just saying…”  She wasn’t sure what she was saying.  She just didn’t like the randomness of Jackie’s magic.  She much preferred when things fit into easy categories.  Sure, there were other people like Corrine who used those categories as an excuse to say they were right and everyone else was a freak, but…

     But nothing, Wylma realized.  That was kind of what she had just been doing with Jackie just now.

     “I’m sorry,” Wylma said.  “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

     “That’s okay,” Jackie said.  The laundry mat was only about a block away now, and she sped up as they approached.  “You can totally make it up to me by letting me show you just how spazzy I can be all over what ghost-monster-demon thing is after me.  I’ll just get my spaz on all over it.  Oh, hey, that sounded dirty.  Ew, Aunt Wylma, get your mind out of the gutter.”

     Jackie ran into the laundromat, and Wylma, shaking her head, followed.

*    *    *

     Aw hell yeah.  Jackie could do this.  She totally could.  Now if she could just figure out what “this” was supposed to be.

     She jumped through the laundromat’s door and screamed “ha!” while striking a ninja pose.  There didn’t appear to be anyone in the place, which seemed like a waste of a perfectly good ninja pose, but Aunt Wylma came in a few seconds later to see it, so Jackie supposed it wasn’t wasted after all. 

     “Jackie, I don’t think that’s going to do anything,” Wylma said.  Jackie just answered with another soft “ha!”  Aunt Wylma may know magic, but she had admitted straight up that she didn’t know anything Jackie’s magic.  Of course, Jackie didn’t know anything about her magic either, which was exactly why she knew a ninja pose would be useful.

     She could feel a strange buzzing sensation coming from somewhere in the building now.  Maybe it had been there before, but she hadn’t been letting herself sense it.  Or, more likely, she’d been trying too hard to sense something different in the world, and that was exactly why it hadn’t been working.  In just a few hours of talking with Aunt Wylma, despite Wylma’s belief that those hours had been wasted, Jackie had come to understand the key principle in who she was and what she could do.  And that understanding was simply that she could never understand anything.

     “How much more time do we have before the five hours are up?” Wylma asked.

     Jackie’s phone rang.  She answered it.

     “Eight minutes, forty-three seconds,” the crackly voice said, then hung up.

     “Well, at least this thing, whatever it is, is accommodating,” Wylma said. 

     “Do you think it actually comes from here in the laundromat?” Jackie asked.

     “I guess,” Wylma said.  “It certainly didn’t respond to us talking about it while we were at the bar or on the streets.”

     “So we can probably talk to it,” Jackie said.  “You can come out early,” she said to the room.  “Really.  If you’re gonna kill me you might as well get it over with.”

     “Jackie,” Wylma said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.  We should take the remaining minutes to prepare and…”

     The phone rang again.  Jackie answered.

     “Stop that,” the voice said.

     “Stop what?” she asked.

     “Talking to me.  I’m just supposed to be a scary voice until the moment I come out to kill you.  I can’t exactly be scary if you keep talking to me.  That’s how the rules work.”  The voice hung up.

     “Oh, quit being such a damp blanket,” Jackie said to the room.  “I want to talk to you.  Hey, you know what?  I should go get some cards and we can totally play Go Fish!”

     The phone rang.  Jackie answered.

     “I’m warning you, you little bitch.”

     “Hey, did you know I can juggle?” Jackie said.  “I’m super good at it.”

     “That’s it.  I don’t care if it’s against the rules, I coming for you now just to shut you up.”  The line went dead, and the cell phone sparked.

     “Aw man, now that thing totally owes me a phone,” Jackie said.  “But it should be here any second now.”

     “Ooh, I really don’t think this is a good idea,” Wylma said.  Before she could even finish the sentence, though, every washer and dryer in the laundry mat turned itself on at once.

     “That’s usually not a good sign.  I’ve got to put up a protection spell or something,” Wylma said.  She stepped ahead of Jackie and made some gestures in the air with her hands while she chanted.  “By the secret sacred shells of Shellaculon, by the…”

     “No,” Jackie said.  “I actually know exactly what I need to do.”

     “You do?”

     “Nope, not a clue.  But don’t you see?  That’s exactly how it works.” 

     Wylma stepped back, obviously not happy about this and probably not understanding.  By not understanding, however, maybe she was finally beginning to understand.  If you understood Spazmatic Magic, you didn’t understand it at all.  But if you didn’t get it, then you got it perfectly.  This wasn’t some magic system like all the others that operated on strict rules.  This was magic in its purest form, all the chaos in between the arbitrary rules. 

     And Jackie was nothing if not chaotic.

     All the machines in the laundromat came to a stop except for one.  A dryer directly across from where Jackie stood continued to go even as its door clicked and slowly swung open.  Something black and hazy swirled inside it.  The haze coalesced into something more tangible, and a hand reached through and went down to support itself on the ground.  Except it wasn’t a hand, exactly.  It was a mitten, and it was attached to the end of a sweatshirt that had faded from too many washings.  A second hand came out to join the first on the floor, except this one was a threadbare glove.

     “Oh, hey,” Wylma said.  “This is a new one, even for the Hill.”

     The thing was made entirely out of old clothes.  Its legs were a pair of jeans with several holes in them, showing a complete lack of flesh underneath.  Its feet, when they came out, were a pair of mismatched socks.  But the most interesting feature of all was its head.  Jackie couldn’t see a face of any kind, but it did have long black hair covering where the face would be.  As it finished crawling out of the dryer, though, Jackie realized the hair was actually thousands of long strands of thread.

     “Is that supposed to be scary?” Jackie asked.

     “Its hair is in its face,” Wylma said.  “That’s always scary.”

     “But it doesn’t have a face,” Jackie said.  “And it’s made of old clothes.  Sorry, not impressed.”

     In a flash of inhuman motion, the clothes-creature skittered across the floor on all fours and stopped just in front of Jackie.

     “Okay, maybe a little impressed,” she said.

     “Jackie, if there’s something you think you can do,” Wylma said, “I really suggest doing it now.”

     “Okay.  Wanna see me moonwalk?” Jackie asked the clothes.

     “No, damn it,” the clothes hissed.  It sounded like multiple fabrics brushing against each other.  “No more games.  You violated the rules of this sacred place…”

     “It’s a laundromat,” Jackie said.

     “It is sacred to my kind!  You violated the rules!”

     “I’m not exactly a rules kind of person,” Jackie said.  With that, she grabbed the mitten and glove, pulled them away from the rest of the clothes-creature, and started to juggle them.

     “Stop that!  How am I supposed to strangle you to death without my hands?”

     “Kind of the point.”

     “This is very rude,” the clothes-creature said.  It took several steps backward, but Jackie stepped on its foot and it fell backward.

     “Do you get it now, Aunt Wylma?” Jackie said.  She dropped the glove and mitten.  Before either of them could hit the ground they transformed.  The mitten became a swarm of moths that instantly attacked the clothes-creature, causing the thing to release its closest approximation to a scream.  The glove turned into a Mr. Potato Head.  When it hit the ground, the parts spread all over the floor and proceeded to do absolutely nothing.

     “Nope,” Wylma said.  “I have to say, I am now more confused than ever.”

     The clothes-creature tried to move back towards the washer, but the moths had already eaten several large ragged holes in it.  The threads were falling off its “head” in massive clumps, and its scream was beginning to peter out.  It stayed in a vaguely human shape for only a few seconds more before it finally collapsed.  The moths flew off, most of them vanishing as they flew, while a few others turned into Legos and joined the Mr. Potato Head parts on the floor.  For a moment the clothes twitched, looking like they were about to get back up.  Jackie moonwalked just to make sure, and they went still.

     “I did it,” Jackie said.  “I really did it!”

     “Yeah, um, I guess you did,” Wylma said.  “I can’t say I have the slightest clue how, though.”

     “You could just say that I did it by being me,” Jackie said.

     Wylma smiled.  “I could, but that would mean I would have to figure out just what you are.”

     “You said it yourself, Shaker,” Jackie said.  “I am a complete and total Spaz.”  And she celebrated by running a lap around the washers.

(c) 2010 Derek Goodman