By A D Jameson
Lawrence and Gibson
On the fifth day, our class was taken on a field trip to Ninja City's secret portions, the developing suburban bailiwicks, expanding eastward at the rate of three blocks per year. The slogan of these newer parts was, "Virus-Free Since '93!" Their motto was, "We Will Find the Serum."
The ninjas who lived there, global warming enthusiasts, threw webbed geodesic domes over desolate tracts—the war-scarred landscape it had been left to them to develop. When the finished dome was turned on, it generated an interior rain that lasted for forty days and thirty-nine nights. When the domes were taken down, the desolation had been transformed into normal, productive topsoil, rich loam like you'd find in a national forest. Other ninjas, the ones whose talents disposed them to comprise the follow-up crew, paved over the mess and poured concrete sidewalks marked with their handprints and the date. Then they built roadside stands from which they sold pints of Noby Sheets's coleslaw. (She used her spare time once a week to make big vats of the stuff, the most delicious slaw I'd ever tasted.)
We each got one mouthful. "We'd normally have a cookout," Hooter Iowan explained, "a charcoal bonanza replete with grilled walking ferns and well-done wallaroo, plus apple pie smashed in a cup, and quiche smoothies served from a cart so overladen it's hard to push between the tables, it gets so stuck in the mud. But Master Adocim, worried sick about what he calls 'the mutton-like state of your bellies and your butts,' says that such a picnic will have to wait until after your training is done."
A ravenous moan went up. Half a dozen acolytes cast desperately about, looking to wolf down whatever wasn't tied down. We found naught but sticks and muck, forest floor inedibles, to fill our stomachs' lacunae. I weathered it better than most; I hadn't eaten for so long that by then I no longer really noticed.
The region's incessant fighting had kicked so much soot into the sky, creating eternal midnight, that we couldn't tell what time of day it was—and while we couldn't tell, it got awful chilly. We instinctively formed a circle to hold in our warmth, while our shaggy assistants fractured and frictioned sticks to ignite a fire. "It's still not quite time to head back," Hooter Iowan said. "Keep enjoying your field trip."
Bored, we poked at one another's dimples, wishing that something would happen.
"Hey, I have a suggestion," said Lactose Echo. "Let's swap horror stories, the scariest ones we can think of. When finished we'll vote on the best one, and that macabre maestro will win all our slaw, coughed up into a cup." He grinned. "That's my brief but crude contribution."
Kiao-Liang, ever eager, went second. Sneezing with every eleventh word, he launched into a terribly grizzly spooker about the Dreadnought, the one part of the fallen alien whale that had (he swore) survived.
"You'll see it soon," he promised, "if you stick around these parts. It's a mangled, twisted metal skeletal mess stuck here and there with bits of flesh. It can think like a man, and manage to purchase some traction in any terrain. So it follows you anywhere, see? It wakes you up with three soft raps on your bedroom door in the post-coital midnight quiet.
"Now, you may have heard the elderly call him the Flader, but don't you believe them. The Dreadnought is not the Flader; he's worse than the Flader, worse than even the Gobbler. The Dreadnought knows no manners, obeys no customs. He can ski down your chimney, or sail right up to your houseboat. You must flee him, evade him at all costs, or he'll catch up and flay you silly, my skin-heavy dear. He has no dearth of darling ways to hurt you. He'll force you, for starters, to retrace your previous steps and lick up your own spit. After that, he'll give you a gallon of milk as a beverage—warm milk—and he won't heed your protests about how you'd rather do anything but drink it.
"Even on the best days, he's inconvenient. He has his clever means to embed himself deep within your subcutaneous layer. He wedges himself beneath the drawbridge downtown, on the night of the biggest date of your young life. Boat traffic backs up behind him, clear past your harbor. You can't take your yacht out. Your date, whom you'd promised a fun-packed night on the water, won't disembark, won't settle for a routine night out on dry land. 'Damn you, Dreadnought,' you curse, 'zombie skeletal nemesis. You're always spoiling the mood….'
"Beneath the drawbridge, stuck fast, the damned thing is already chuckling, despite having scraped off more meat and half its paintjob. 'You'll murder yourself in time,' it solemnly vows. 'You're a suicide waiting to happen. I won't have to lift a finger to see you swing. And as your neck constricts, and your dry eyes bulge, you'll scan the room, and see me hunched over, giggling in the corner, enjoying the view….'"
His both nasal cavities fluming, Kiao-Liang finished with a flourish. We clapped, our icy palms sporadically smacking. The dude, as always, had unnerved us.
Bock Sonti, not to be outdone, spun a long one about a bird he'd known way back when he'd been a roadie, a rhea in love with Dar Williams. It followed her around, traipsing wherever she toured. Dar would wake up, yawn, rub the sleep out, scrub, brush—then see the rhea's distinctive three-toed footprints. "Oh crap," she'd mouth. The rhea had found her again, spent all night staring at her while she slept, maybe going so far as to sit in the bed beside her. She brushed the comforter, looking for feathers, to feel if the fabric was still warm. She'd have to change the locks, find a different hotel room.
She didn't always report it. What could cops do? Incompetents, they'd rifle her underwear drawer, "dusting for prints"—and then, when they thought she wasn't looking, sneak snapshots of her, fetally hunched, sipping coffee in the bay window. "Please autograph this, ma'am," they'd say, proffering her things sealed in Ziploc bags. "Official investigative business." She always complied, knowing full-well that those knickers knickknacks would end up on eBay, accompanied by opening bids of over one-hundred dollars.
That's exactly how the police had helped her the last time, fin de siècle, when a scatterbrained but stubborn oxpecker confused her for an ox, and her backing band and equipment for fellow oxen. Lacking the hide of an ox, or a hippo, or rhino—the durable kind that can take it—Dar feared she'd be drilled to death, whittled away by incessant affectionate pecking. She'd only escaped when the tick-loving pest accidentally trapped itself in a vat of quick-drying cement, having fallen in while trying to fish out the tick-shaped and -colored ring that Dar'd carelessly dropped. She'd heard the desperate thing's dying shrieks for a week; she repeatedly saw it rip off its own beak while struggling to wing aloft, to escape and fly free.
Would this rhea's new clusterfuck infatuation precipitate a similar crisis? Would the Fates intervene? How could anyone be expected to step out on stage, to compose new songs, to perform for a paying crowd, all the while smiling and upbeat, without succumbing to doubts the harassment was all her own fault?
She flashed back to that night at the Wilkes-Barre punk club, the run-down place where she never should have been booked. The audience there had been too young, too cynically hardcore, too hip, to allow themselves to be won over by Dar William's folksy singer/songwriter hooks. After flubbing her set and receiving no call for an encore, she'd felt so forlorn, so high and dry far away in a middle-of-nowhere former mining town, she'd accepted the big bird's offer to buy her a drink. She'd noticed him instantly, she admitted, the only fellow in attendance wearing one of her t-shirts, the only one who'd clapped when the others booed.
As she threw back a double, knowing full well that she shouldn't, she poured her fool heart out, letting go of the pent-up emotions she hadn't been able to access that night through her music. She needed a shoulder to cry on, a firm upper frame—even one that was feathered and flightless.
As she figured it would, one gesture slipped into another, and soon they were back in his rented room, where of course he tried to get fresh. It wasn't as though she'd expected anything else; she hadn't been able to miss his hardon, straining the front of his khakis. Still, he came on a little too strong. "I adore you," he said. "When we're married, I'll join you onstage, whistling along to whatever song you play."
"Hey, now, buddy, look," she vainly tried to protest, "this is just for one night, OK? In the morning, we'll go our separate ways, enriched by the encounter, but strangers, capiche?"
He'd said he understood, but now she wondered…. Had he said those nice things just to get her into his nest? Or had he meant them? And what did he want now? To show her the power that he had, or to genuinely reconnect? Dar found it hard to trust anyone, to believe a bird when he said, vis-à-vis, that he wanted the same life that she did. Her celebrity draped her, chilly and isolating, muffling her in an atmosphere too opaque, like the persistent autumn fog that routinely rolled in at night to fill the Wyoming Valley. Occluded, she couldn't be seen for herself by anybody else—she was just a blurry silhouette when within ten paces. The fog, admittedly romantic, tingled her bare skin and enlivened her—but it obscured all.
The rhea, she thought, can't fly; it can't climb above it. The only flying that bird did, she'd read in a book, was into berserker rages, triggered the moment they understood that the object of their desire was leaving forever, their love unrequited.
On that day, Dar wondered, what would she decide to be the most ethical reaction? She fingered her new ring. Though scared, she didn't want to bust lovelorn hearts, or to fuck up anyone's head—not a bird's, not a man's, and especially not a fan's.
I thought these stories a little too much for Doomchop, a simple critter. While the other shaggy assistants squealed with pleasure, guffawing with each incredulous spectral twist, my companion buried his face into my chestplate, the fur underneath and around his reddened eyes sopping wet.
I returned to my crib to find it newly equipped with divine twin divans. But the AC, fickle, had gone on the fritz, the consequence of the city's most eastern power station having been bombed (most buzz bombs missed, but periodically five or six slipped through in a miniature blitz).
I didn't care; no way could I have slept. Thanks to the tales, I was still scared witless. Doomchop, who'd quieted down, once or twice stirred and murmured; he babbled and smacked as I cooed and soothingly stroked his cowlicks.