Leaning back in his chair Rusty couldn’t tell which creaked the loudest, the back of the varnished wooden frame or his spine, thanks to the great mass of goodness now filling his belly.
He’d never had lamb. It had a heady richness utterly alien to his tongue. The riot of residual spices, the curry and cumin still lingered on his tongue. Needless to say, it was far from his family’s dietary staples of beef and potatoes and diced carrots. He’d never had green olives or olive oil, nor had he had anything wrapped in grape leaves…it was a meal as foreign to him as his first steps onto the red plain, as odd and wonderful as the battered owl who came crashing into his back yard only to emerge from his closet as a beautiful woman, and it was as lovely and exotic as said dark-haired woman sitting beside him.
The Owl Woman dabbed her lips with her paper napkin. The meal had a certain mysterious charm and elegance, but the setting was still a bachelor pad and linen napkins were far from the standard.
The meal had been a quiet affair. Rusty with his eyes lowered found himself fixating the whole of his vision on the colorful meal before him. No one had ever prepared a meal for him in his life outside his mother. He didn’t quite know what to do.
Lame in the art of conversation, he thought of questions to ask the Owl Woman; what she recalled of her past, her time in this house and her life with her little girl. Each time a question formed on his lips, he felt his hand conspire against him by shoveling in another delicious morsel.
To the Owl Woman’s left an additional chair stood away from the table by half a foot. It was no mystery who sat there; absent but present and existing somewhere beyond the realm of his immediate senses. Through the meal he would occasionally glance at the empty chair and back to the Owl Woman but said nothing.
Beaming at Rusty from over her own empty plate, the Owl Woman placed her hands in her lap.
“Dawn wants to know if you’d play for her?”
Rusty blinked and tried not to stutter. “Well, sure. I can do that.”
Feeling a touch of sloth creep over him from the rich and flavorful meal, Rusty slid his chair back and rounded the dining table to the living room. He lifted his guitar from where it stood in the corner below the shaded window and took a seat on the sofa.
What do you sing for a little ghost girl, he thought. And then he realized that he’d been singing for her all along. Ever since he’d moved into the bungalow he’d been singing for her. Hell, standing in the corner or at his elbow hour after hour, she probably knew his entire repertoire by heart. She might very well be sick to death of listening to him, he thought. Then thought that a very poor choice of words.
He gave the strings a cursory brush and twisted down the low E string. “What does she want to hear?”
Without missing a beat the Owl Woman said, “The song you’ve been working on since this morning.”
Taken aback by the suggestion, Rusty could only stutter: “But I haven’t written anything—there’s no words. I don’t have a tune. Just a notion…and maybe not even that.”
The Owl Woman looked at the empty space on the far side of the coffee table and nodded to no one visible. “That doesn’t matter. The song has already been seeded in you. If you share it with us, it’s sure to grow.”
So Rusty rested the curve of the guitar’s waist atop his thigh and pressed the pads of his fingers to the strings. He let the fingers of right hand brush an open chord. Keeping his hand loose he let his fingers flutter–he let them find their way into the song that had no notion.
He closed his eyes and for a moment saw the red plain and the sky-clad women standing below. He saw the tower leaking light through a million jots and friezes and the riot of alien stars above. He took in a breath and let something soothing and nearly tuneless rise from his belly, course into his lungs and over his vocal chords.
The soft whisper of a breeze drifted into the room from high above their heads and the gentle giggle of flowing water slid down and around their feet. At the cusp of Rusty’s awareness, he recalled the home of those sounds; it was the little brook that ran just at the edge of his grandma’s property.
One spring evening while wandering down along the banks, he discovered the most peaceful sound he had ever heard in his life when he came upon a nest of mallards. The drowsy ducklings were oblivious to his approach, allowing him to be taken in by the delicate peeping they made, sounds as soft and sweet as the down their mother had plucked from her breast to make their nest.
Tickling the guitar strings with greater vigor, a soft green rustle of winter wheat coalesced into a sound like distant applauding hands where deep below the stalks, a chorus of crickets commenced to tune their barbed leggings upon their rippled wings.
The wordless tune as soft as rose petals and bright as sunlight winking through shallow shoals found confidence on Rusty’s lips and wended its way into the music now visiting the room. He let open vowels form wordless phrases and nameless syllables find limbs with which to dance.
And time stopped having meaning of any kind. The sun could have risen and set a dozen times over for all Rusty knew.
His head drifting from side to side as he plucked his guitar strings, a single sound visited him, standing out over all others. It was a sigh… the gentlest of sighs, full and content.
Rusty opened his eyes and standing an arm’s length away, her dirty blond bangs cut short and straight across her forehead, eyes as blue as arctic seas, cheeks flushed with a pink stolen from late summer cherry blossoms, wearing the red floral print button-down she died in that morning in 1986 was Dawn.
As Rusty watched the little girl’s chest rose and fell. She sighed once again and gave him a smiled exactly like her mother’s.
The old Itasca had two speeds, Cross Town Traffic and Rattle Trap. After nearly four hours traveling the interstate at its top speed, Former Coroner Ron was certain at any moment Rattle Trap would shift up to Death Trap and the mastodon of tempered glass and pressed aluminum would explode into a million pieces.
Demigods seem to have a knack for tolerating extended periods at fever pitch. Not so for Former Forensic Specialists turned Paranormal Investigators. After a mere two hours tracing their route on the road atlas and barking directions to Paulus, a fatigued Former Corner Ron tossed the map to Castro and collapsed on his undersized bunk. The vacant and darkening highway beyond their headlamps had begun to work his mind like a loom, weaving scenarios of doom in which the odd little band traveled in endless circles about Midwest highways and by-ways giving ample time for the creature with the insanely long talons to shred yet one more innocent young mother and her daughter.
There was no way in hell they were going to make it in time, Former Coroner Ron told himself. And it was entirely possible they weren’t even traveling to the correct destination. Hibbing, Minnesota? How the hell did he come up with Hibbing, Minnesota?
“A little bird told me,” he muttered to himself and started to giggle. The giggle threatened to swell into a full-blown belly laugh had not the cold blue image of Carri Cromwell made a return visit to his mental movie screen. Nearly ten years and that last glance at her pale face seconds before his world went Electric Blue haunted him unlike any other.
He remembered feeling like he’d grabbed an electric fence with both hands and his teeth snapping together hard enough to shatter. But it was that winged thing that emerged from the seam in the woman’s chest that clinched the deal and turned his world inside out. He recalled a raptor-like mass of neon light and Mediterranean blue seas, but finer details of the creature’s form were a blur save its eyes; shiny golden domes with a single black pupil at the center. Those eyes flew into and through him and the next thing he saw was the institutional cream white hospital wall beyond the foot of his bed.
A little bird told him much–and nothing.
Deep in the hindquarters of the Itasca, Former Coroner Ron was deaf to the labored pulse of the motor home’s engine, but the vibrations he felt as they as traveled over the rutted highway made him marvel over the vehicle’s persistent durability. He wished his demigod companions were indeed gifted with wings of gossamer or the power to displace time and space.
There was no way in hell they were going to make it in time, he told himself again.
Pressing the heels of his palms to his eye sockets, Former Coroner Ron rubbed deeply into his aching orbs. He hurt all over and his nerves were a jangled mess. How long had it been since he actually claimed a full night’s sleep? He couldn’t remember.
He took a deep breath and did his ever best to imagine the air flowing down into his corpulent belly where the swirls of fresh, pure oxygen caressed his agitated adrenal glands like the soft and sincere hands of a trained masseuse. He took another breath and he heard a wing beat. His breath stopped halfway down his esophagus. He heard another wing beat and another and with it a feeling of buoyancy, of elation, of…correctness.
That sound told Former Coroner Ron all he needed to allay his fears. Not only were the merry little band of heavenly rejects on the Razor Baby’s trail, they had reached their destination.
Before Former Coroner Ron could hoist himself up, he heard Castro’s raspy voice holler from the nose of their great metal beast, “Doctor! We are here!”
Tromping to the front of the swaying motor home, his hands grasping for counter tops and seat backs, Former Coroner Ron spied the deep green sign as they sped past: HIBBING, MN .5 MILES.
Castro swiveled about in the passenger chair, eyes expectant. Former Coroner Ron closed his eyes and drew in another deep, purifying breath.
“Take the next left,” he said.
Within These Walls
For nearly ten years the little dead girl’s eyes held not a dram of moisture, her voice no vibration and her flesh no resistance. Not surprising, it was halfway into her second sigh Dawn noted the sensation of air rushing into her lungs.
Her sigh turned instantly to a gasp.
Dawn choked, nearly hiccoughed and drew in a sweetly deep breath that whistled through her nose. Her hands flew to her face to feel the air rushing in through her nostrils while her chest expanded like a little bellows and she cried, “Moooommmmyyyy!!”
The Owl Woman became a dark-haired blur as she instantly swept the little girl up into her arms.
“Mommy, where have you been?” Dawn cried.
“Oh, Baby, I am so sorry. I am so sorry…” Carri said, burying her face in her daughter’s hair. “It’s all going to be alright now.”
Rusty silently leaned back into the couch and released his grip about the neck of his guitar. “That little girl has been here all this time.” The realization hit him like a haymaker. “Lost in the walls of this place, watching me walk through my dumb little life.”
Rusty looked the little girl over as best he could from beyond the drapery of her mother’s long black hair. And then the discovery, “And my dumb little life was all she had…”
Slumping deeper into the couch, Rusty could only marvel at the magical strangeness so unexpectedly wrought on his life. The supernatural reunion playing out before him would send cracks through the average person’s sanity, but to Rusty the gentle whispered reassurances, the caressing of cheeks, and the tears filled him with a gentle feeling of wholeness. Rusty wasn’t entirely certain what that meant, he just knew he liked it.