The Green Menagerie

0

Of all the ramshackle, makeshift “lounges” I’ve ever spent time in during my decades of crisscrossing every dive and hotel in this dusty land, this was the worst. And the smelliest. I should have braced myself when I noticed underneath the flickering neon “Max’s Comedy Castle” sign, one could still read in ghostly bleed-through letters, “Timmons Truckstop & Taxidermy.” I guess an economy class magician in his sunset years can expect no better:  I took what I could get.

When I first entered the room, my nose was assaulted by the unnatural mixture of smoke, must, urine and cinnamon. I set down in a beaten green velvet wing back and started in on a watered-down cherry soda. The sweetness of the drink didn’t help the odor.

“You’re on in forty-five,” Max informed me. “They’re gonna love ya, Tim. We ain’t had a magic man since before the fire.”

He left immediately, I presumed to tend to the early patrons.

Okay.

I looked around at no less than fifty stuffed creatures in various poses and stages of completion, some on the wall, some on pedestals strewn about the place. Predator and prey were displayed, even a Capuchin monkey. Although the space seemed long and fairly wide, it was crowded and poorly lit by three electric chandeliers.

“Psst.”

I heard it, but didn’t know from which direction the sound had come.

“Excuse me?” I queried. “Is someone else here?”

Max hadn’t mentioned the possibility of anyone else.

I remembered the time in Reno I was relaxing with a perfect martini in my hand when two dwarfs dressed as cowboys, complete with tiny shooting irons, crawled out from under a coffee table. Scared the daylights out of me! Eddie and Vito; they claimed they were brothers. I forgave them for making me spill my martini, and they forgave me for pulling a knife on them. They still send me postcards at Christmas sometimes.

No answer.

I stood up and stepped around a massive, but tattered, grizzly bear, ample enough to be hiding three dwarfs.

“Psst.”

Did the sound come from behind me that time?

“I say. Who’s there? Is this some kind of joke?” I challenged.

Annoyance was creeping over me.

I tip-toed past a couple of jaguars, ducked under an elk head, sidled past two battling rams, and waited.

Just because Max didn’t mention anyone else didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone else. And what was the idea of sneaking around anyway? I might expect a prank or two at a comedy club, but a lunatic?

“Psst.”

“Who’s there? What, are you gonna sing me ‘Happy Birthday’, pal?”

See, one time I heard someone whistling “Happy Birthday” as I was unlocking my apartment door back home in Fresno. I froze! It felt like a bad slasher flick. I could already see the headline in the paper: “The Birthday Killer Strikes Again!” But I wasn’t in any mortal danger. Turned out to be some bum crashed out in the bushes nearby. He high-tailed it when he saw the Gerber in my hand.

This time I had definitely heard it on the other side of the room. This sucker was moving around. Why did this always happen to me?

I crept slowly across the room, needling my way around foxes and beavers and a jackalope.

I drew my trusty blade from my pocket. Had to be prepared, after all.

“Psst.”

Blast it! It came from off to the right. Against that dark paneled wall was the front half of a Texas longhorn. I felt trapped in its glassy stare.

He reminded me of the time in Rio Rancho when some crazy chute boss thought it would be funny to let a bull loose in the middle of my act at the Hot Tamale Rodeo. Got a lifetime ban after I jabbed that beast in the nose with four inches of steel. But you could hardly have blamed me, right?

Surely he didn’t just psst me! This wasn’t Narnia. Someone was playing me for a fool.

“Alright! That’s enough of this, buddy!”

I advanced toward the bull, staring it down, brandishing the Gerber, certain that my tormentor would leap out from somewhere nearby.

“Psst.”

“Come out from there!”

I charged toward the bull, my eyes darting left and right, waiting for the prankster to surrender with arms thrown high, apologizing and pleading for mercy.

Nothing. I waited. I could feel my teeth sweat. Dozens of cold hard stares eagerly anticipated what would unfold.

“Psst.”

Then I saw it, nestled below and to the right of the bull. A Glade automatic air freshener. Apple Cinnamon.

Aw, nuts. I ran it through all the same.

Korkurri

0

Jayna stands on the balcony of the bleach white tower. She tucks a stray golden lock under her scarf as she searches the deep green ocean waves that stretch out underneath a foreboding sky.

A small, but furious storm nears, and Rustin is out there. Earlier he took the hydro-skiff out to meet this anomaly and discover more of its nature.

Fifteen years as weather-keepers of Magorria has brought many storms over its coasts, but nothing like this. It is approaching too rapidly. Hearing the transmitters crackling in the tower, she rushes over to the crystal console.

Falkyn, is that you? Respond, Falkyn,” she intones through the mouthpiece.

“Cork…” Static. “Cork…” The reply is choppy and muddled. “Leave!” More static. “Warn the…” More static. “True, Jayna! They’re real!” Then nothing. Nothing at all.

Jayna scans the crystal displays. No sign of the Falkyn.  Its com-signal is gone.

What could he mean? Cork? Does he mean Corkan? That’s a hundred leagues away. Why was he shouting?

She flips a series of red switches and signals the Capital Tower.

“Hightower, this is Magorria Weatherhouse. Acknowledge!” Jayna sends out.

After a moment, a response crackles through.

“Magorria Weatherhouse, this is Hightower. We hear you.”

“We have a situation.” Jayna bites her lip, unsure how much alarm to raise.

“Proceed, Magorria.”

“I’ve lost contact with Falkyn. Captain report is incomplete. Garbled communications.”

“What about the storm?” the Tower queries.

“No further information. Proceeding at 45 knots. Never seen anything like it. Storms don’t move this quickly. And, Carl?”

Jayna rarely breaks formality.

“I’m listening, Jayna,” the Tower answers.

“Something’s wrong. Rustin kept saying something about Corkan. I couldn’t understand him. He said to warn them. Or someone. He said that ‘they’ were real. Then he cut out completely.”

“How fast is the Falkyn?”

“About sixty knots,” Jayna responds. “It should arrive ahead of the storm.” I hope.

“Keep monitoring the storm. Report back if you hear from Falkyn, or if anything changes.”

“I will. Over and out.” Jayna switches off the mouthpiece and scans the crystals again. The storm has quickened its pace. How is that possible?

***

The skies darken and the approaching dusk brings portent of the fiercest maelstrom Jayna or anyone in Magorria has ever witnessed.

Suddenly a blip appears on the crystals. The Falkyn, Jayna realizes. She attempts repeatedly to establish transmitter contact, but no one answers. The skiff should be close enough to see, she reasons.

Standing, Jayna peers out over the blackening sea and spots the mottled red hull of the Falkyn, racing full speed – not toward the dock, but straight for the coastline.

Jayna dashes through the door and down the steps toward the beach just as the Falkyn plows into the shore, sending rocks and seabirds flying in every direction. She reaches the skiff just as it finishes grinding to a halt, and scans the bridge where Rustin should be.

She sees only what remains of him. Twisted black shapes are strewn about.  She heaves and empties her stomach into the sand.

Then she understands. It’s not a storm coming. It’s a swarm.

The Korkurri have returned.

There is no time to waste. Jayna runs back into the Weatherhouse and calls for the twins.

“Koltus! Kastia!”

“We’re here, Mollom!” her son answers.

Her voice is resolute. “Go to the vault! Take your sister and lock yourself in it! Now!”

She shepherds the children into the vault, reminding them how to activate the seals.

“Is it the storm, Mollom? Why aren’t you coming? Where is Daka?”

She cannot answer their flurry of questions. Jayna looks down at their creamy faces, their lavender eyes framed with curled ebony locks.

“Trust me, children. Wait. No matter what you hear, no matter what you think, don’t come up till three days have passed. Be brave.”

With that, she shuts the door and darts back up to the crystal console.

“Hightower! Respond, Hightower!” she shouts into the mouthpiece.

“Proceed, Magorria.”

“Rustin is dead! It’s not a storm, Hightower. Repeat. This is not a storm!”

“Come again, Magorria. Transmission not understood.”

“The Korkurri are coming. They’re almost here. You must mobilize the defenses. This is an emergency!”

“Jayna, what’s wrong?”

“The Korkurri! Mobilize the defenses!”

“The Korkurri are a myth, Jayna. What do you mean Rustin is dead? What’s going on?”

“Listen to me!” Jayna pleads, realizing they will not.

“We’re sending someone over,” comes the reply. “Stay right there.”

She switches off the mouthpiece. Ten minutes earlier she thought the Korkurri were a myth, too. It was centuries ago, the last time they swarmed the land.

She opens an observation window and already she notices the buzzing. The stories always mention a buzzing.

She throws open the Emergency Channel. No time for authorization.

“Magorria! Magorria! Activate the defenses! The Korkurri are here! Repeat. The Korkurri are here!”

She goes on like this for several minutes until she see the transmission core power down by itself. The Capital, no doubt.

The buzzing is louder now. In the distance she discerns villagers scrambling through the streets. At least some have hearkened. She can do no more.

Jayna knows that if the stories are true, there is little one can do against the Korkurri. Their numbers are vast. She finds the glass-cannon in a dusty storage cabinet and hurries to the deepest room of the Weatherhouse, the bath-chamber.

At least my children will live, she thinks as she hunkers into the tub and awaits her fate. They won’t sense them, if the stories are true.

She remembers as a child she was always told to hide in a bathtub when a swirler appears. Hide in the bathtub. You’ll be safe. Why do they say things like that?

She hears their metallic claws ripping through the plastered walls of the tower. Stone and wood crumble and crack all around her as the first hideous shape makes its way into the room.

She fires the glass-cannon, again and again.

If only the stories weren’t true.

Andy Appleby’s Fireworks

0

“I wonder if God ever just feels sorry for you,” I thought as I sat there soaking in the sweltering courtroom of the Migdon County Juvenile Justice Center during the summer of 1948.

     “State your name,” said the prosecutor, Mr. Kratt, with his pencil nose and icy stare.

     “Joshua Everett Wade, Sir.”

     “Do you go by any other name, Mr. Wade?”

     “Well,” I said, “Momma calls me Skunk-Butt when I’m in trouble, Sir.”

      Snickers rippled through the room and Kratt scowled slightly.

     “Enough,” he said to everyone. “And are you familiar with the defendant?”

     “Well sure, Sir. Me and Andy been best pals since third grade.”

     “Can you describe your whereabouts on Tuesday, July 2nd, between the hours of 10:00AM and noon?”

    “I was shootin’ marbles out back of Tuttle Grocery with Freddy McEntire and Skeet Johnson. Andy was there, too.”

     Kratt knitted his eyebrows together.

     “Mr. Wade,” he pronounced, “no less than four witnesses have already stated, under oath, they noticed Andy Appleby loitering in front of Cazban General during that time. Am I correct?”

     “I don’t know who they seen, Sir. Andy was with us the whole time, honest to God.”

     Freddy and Skeet sat on the back row with their sunburned faces, wide-eyed and heads bobbing.

     “So you admit,” came Kratt’s rejoinder, “that you were with Mr. Appleby during the time period in question, when over seventy-five dollars’ worth of fireworks were stolen from Mr. Cazban.”

     I didn’t much like the way this was going, and I fidgeted with the marble in my pocket, a neon green popper I won from Glass-Eyed Gus last summer. I shuffled it around as I pondered how much I should admit.

     Several moments passed.

     “Mr. Wade, you seem distracted. What’s in your pocket?”

     “It’s just a marble, Sir.”

     “Hand it over. I’ll not let the proceedings of this court be interrupted by a silly toy,” Kratt ordered.

     I slowly drew my prized popper out, but hesitated to place it in his pale outstretched palm. I looked at the judge.

     “Hand it over,” he calmly instructed.

     I rose up to surrender my contraband, and at this very moment Providence chose to play its hand.

     Sometime in 1932, it turned out, Judge Williams ordered every chair and table in that courtroom nailed to the floor. A scuffle had broken out one day, resulting in several breakages of furniture and décor, not to mention a couple of skulls.

     As I stood up, several things happened at once: I realized too late that in my fidgeting and squirming I had wrapped my foot around one chair leg. I promptly lost my balance and went crashing over the witness box banister.

      I still made an effort to plant the popper into Kratt’s hand, and he made a determined attempt to receive it. This only resulted in the marble bouncing through the air and landing in the exact center of court stenographer Alison Pennybottom’s emphatically burdened brassiere.

     Half the jaws in the room dropped and half the cheeks turned in shame as Alice shrieked and went diving for the offending projectile. She fished the shiny orb out only to see it escape her grip and go rolling toward the gallery.

     “Order in the court!” shouted the judge as the bailiff sprang into action to retrieve the renegade ordnance. Only he ended up kicking my poor popper and sending it through a small hole at the bottom of the bar. A slightly larger marble would have gotten stuck, and that would have been the end of things. However, in what my Grampy often called a plumb coincidence, the rocketing roller barely slipped through and on to the gallery pews where sat none other than Glass-Eyed Gus McCormack.

     Suddenly eyeing a chance to get his ace shooter back, Gus dove at the same instant the bailiff and several other well-meaning citizens also tried to capture it. The courtroom shook with a sound like a football scrimmage line a split second after the snap. Bodies went flying, Gus went tumbling, the bailiff flipped over and slammed his boots into Mr. Cazban’s astonished face, and in all the kerfuffle my marble kept rolling to the back of the courtroom where Freddy scooped it up and thrust it into his pocket.

     As the bailiff regained his bearings, he grabbed up Gus by his suspenders and shook him.

     “Blast it, boy! What did you do with it?” he screamed.

     Right at that moment, something fell from the chest pocket of Gus’s bib overalls and onto the floor a mere three feet away from Mr. Cazban with his bloody nose: a bright red jumping jack from the Nantucket Fireworks Company.

     “That’s one of my fireworks!” exclaimed Mr. Cazban. “I had just received them that morning. I hadn’t even put them out for sale yet!”

     Every eye in the courtroom lasered in on Gus’s bewildered face.

     “I don’t know where that came from! That’s not mine!” he stammered.

     But we all had seen it fall from his pocket. In short order, Judge Williams dismissed the case against Andy Appleby and closed the proceedings, detaining old Glass-Eye and dismissing the rest of us to go about our merry business.

     As we shuffled out of the courtroom, I locked eyes with Skeet Johnson and he gave me a quick furtive smile. Skeet was the best pickpocket in the county, and I was pretty sure I knew how a jumping jack ended up in Glass-Eyed Gus’s bib overalls that day.

     Several months would pass before the boys and I took our stash of firecrackers way out to Potter Falls, about ten miles away, where we told our folks we were going camping. We tried to light a few, but we ended up burying most of the loot. I guess we figured enough was enough. You can’t keep hoping the Lord will wink at you.