30 May, 2013

Mightier Than the Sword/Cliches/Fatal Hesitation

It was dark. The front room was a disaster area, with debris scattered all around, and a wall was missing, allowing the only light in the room to come from the streetlights. I had a body laying on top of me, which I found to be rather startling, in and of itself. I shoved the body off of me, and sat up to get a better look at who this person used to be. It was a Ten's delivery guy. Even stranger. What was he doing here?

There was a gurgling sound behind me, and I turned to find Allendriel laying on one of the remaining walls, about halfway up, at a precarious angle that didn't make sense at first, until I noticed that he'd been pinned there by a piece of wood that protruded just beneath his ribcage that normally was never meant to be seen, hidden behind a wall. I swallowed hard.

"Al-Allendriel? What happened?" I looked around the room some more. "Where's Sal? Diego?"

The Fallen opened his mouth and immediately vomited dark, inky stomach bile. It cascaded down the front of his sweater-vest. It reeked of limestone, blood, and something rotten. I gagged almost instantly. He raised an arm and pointed out to the street.

"Sal and Diego are out there? Why did they just leave me? And what happened to you? Will you survive this? Jesus, what the fuck happened while we were, what, asleep?"

"Go," he barely managed to rasp out. More of what I assumed to be blood poured out of his mouth as a pained expression overcame him. He reached into one of his pockets and slowly pulled out a pen, feebly passing it to me.

"Uh..." I began, but he gave me as stern of a look as he could muster and clicked the pen before throwing it at me. Somehow, it landed neatly tucked behind my ear. Allendriel looked momentarily exasperated, then sighed. "Go!" he barely shouted, spraying me with his blood.

I grabbed then pen from my ear and looked from it to him and back again several times. Each time my glance turned his way, he looked more and more angry. Deciding to not incur his wrath, I instead figured I would work out the significance of the pen as I went along. I wasn't positive, but I didn't think I had ever been as unsure of anything as I was of going into a fight armed with nothing but a pen.

"As far as bad plans go, I suppose it's kind of comforting to know that they can't get any worse than this. I mean, if they expect you to be armed to the teeth, they'll act accordingly. If they expect nothing, you'll have the element of surprise, at least."

At that, I broke into a run and leapt through the hole where my wall used to be into my writhing lawn.

"Shit!" I never slowed down once my feet hit the dirt. I just kept on running, hoping that my momentum would keep me safe. A gash appeared on my cheek as one of the tangles of thistle vines thrashed at me.

Don't stop! Keep moving!

Once I made it to the sidewalk is when I came to a stop. I was bleeding, but not too bad. I had certainly suffered worse wounds before, so I wasn't going to let this little scratch slow me down. However, now that I was out of the house, I had to find Diego and Sal, find out why they just left me, do something about my lawn, and possibly do some fighting.

Luckily for me, the biggest clue I would need was the sound of voices coming from the bottom of the hill, near Cliff's guard post. I wondered where he was in all this. I hadn't seen him since the fire, and I never did thank him for the tip about it, as well as helping to try and put it out. Either way, the voices were in unison and seemed to all be in tune with one another.

"Chanting? I think I'm going to need a bigger pen...." I sighed to myself, starting down the hill.

...

I didn't really get very far before I realized that time may be of the essence, so I juked to the left, towards my yard, to find my Tank sitting at the curb, ready to be ridden into battle. I stopped short, to assess my situation. Fantastic. I was riding into a confrontation with something that could take out Allendriel with a golf cart as my steed, and a pen as my weapon.

"Here goes nothing, I suppose." Mindlessly, like one does with a clicky-top pen, I clicked it a couple times and slid it into my pocket before bounding over to the Tank and hopping into the driver's seat, and saw something in the passenger seat that made my night so much better.

"Bug bombs and a gas mask! Kick ass!" There was hope for me yet. I might last six seconds instead of three, but it was something, and my friends needed me to try. Maybe I could reenact the thrilling heroics of the garden gnome incident.

"I wonder what Tilly would say if she could see me now," I sighed.

"I think I would ask you what you're doing in your...uh...tank at three in the morning. Also, I would ask about all the noise. What's going on?" I spun to see Tilly standing just a few feet away from me, looking drop-dead sexy in her lacy silk nightgown with the split up to just above mid-thigh on both sides.

The things I would do to this woman if I had the time.

"Um, well, Til, I don't rightly know. I woke up to find Diego gone, a hole in my front wall, and chanting down by Cliff's. I'd offer to keep me company, but I think it might be dangerous." She looked at me and pouted. Here we go...

"Yeah? And a li'l ol' girl like me can't take of herself, huh? Oh, please. I can probably handle myself better 'n you can! Move over, let me drive." There was no stopping her when she got this way. As she went around the Tank, I moved into the passenger seat, and got a second gas mask ready. When she came around the truck, I handed her the mask.

"Here, put this on, darling." She eyed it bemusedly before looking back to me.

"You're joking, right?"

"Sorry, Til, it looks like there are more bad gasses floating about."

"Truly?"

"Well, not yet. That's what these are for." I held up the fumigation bombs. "Something big is going on. Really big. Most likely bigger than the gnome debacle."

"That was, quite possibly, the dumbest caper I've ever heard of." She crossed her arms and blew her bangs out of her face.

"Looking back on it, I think it's probably one of the most hilarious stories I've ever heard, but, back to this: I have a feeling I'm going to have to save Sal and Diego. The scope of this trouble, this danger, just feels...bigger, somehow."

"Oh, don't be so dramatic, Jim. How bad could is possibly be?" Her visage was so very innocuous.

"Really, Til? 'How bad could it be?'" I slumped in my seat. "Do you own a gun?"

"What? Why?"

"You just uttered one of the few statements that should never be said, along with 'It can't get any worse than this,' or 'I'll be right back!' In the first example, it always gets worse immediately after saying that, and in the latter, whomever says that is never heard from again. You've just doomed us to face...." I just stared in the direction of the bottom of the hill as the pieces fell into place.

"Fuck. Tandamum. That's why Allendriel showed us that. Tandamum is imprisoned here. Wait." I closed my eyes and pictured the scene again. The village where Pacifi made her last stand. It was this neighborhood, but where did the final act take place? Then, without warning, it clicked. "We're so screwed, Tilly. We are so very, very fucked."

"Why? What's tantamount to what? What, or who, is Allendriel? Jim, what's going on?" The streetlights, and the lights in every single window in the neighborhood, all simultaneously winked out, bathing us in the light of the full moon. Of course.

"Okay, time's up, Til." I started the Tank, and put it into Drive, pointing down the hill. "Short version: There's a demon buried here, and this part's a little fuzzy to me, but I'm keeping it asleep by doing the lawncare gig. When Sal and Diego went on strike, it began waking up. Now...I think we may have to kill something unbeatable."

Tilly's eyes went wide and her jaw dropped.

...

Some time later, I had snuck down close to Cliff's guard house. Crouched behind several large Tatarian Honeysuckle shrubs in the first lawn of the community, Mr. and Mrs. Frank and Judy Danforth, I could, very clearly, see what was going on. It still hadn't fully sunk in.

Literally everyone in the neighborhood, except "Mr. Marsailles," Tilly, and myself, plus Sal, Cliff (he couldn't afford one of the houses, and refused to move his wife and daughters into our flop house), and some guy I couldn't recognize, was in the torchlight around the grass clipping dumpster. They were all wearing grey robes. Fucking cultists! Son of a bitch, goddamnit.

I hate dealing with hive-minded sheeple under normal circumstances when they weren't trying to kill my friends, so I was practically seething now.

The only people not in grey robes were Cliff, Sal, Diego, and the stranger; they wore white robes, and they were all tied to posts roughly nine feet in length. Diego was ranting about the indignity involved with being stripped and redressed by the other denizens of the community. Mrs. Shea succinctly balled up his boxer shorts and shoved them in his mouth. Diego only redoubled his rabble-rousing efforts.

Sal looked like he was trying to get the stranger's attention, but the item that upset me the most was that it looked like someone had beat the shit out of Cliff. Why would a group of thirty- and forty-somethings need to rough up a man who was easily well into his sixties? It almost literally made me sick.

I toyed with the fumigation bombs on my improvised bandolier, waiting to see what, exactly, was going on here. Common sense told me not to wait, to just pull the daisy-chained pins, run in, grab my friends (and the stranger), and vamoose, but something nagged at the back of my mind. I didn't have all the pieces of this puzzle, just most of them.

One hooded individual stood up and began barking out that same heavily accented English that Allendriel and Tandamum had spoken in. I had to strain to make out what was being said, but it was something about either waking or not waking someone who was resting. I wasn't sure which it was, as the tenses sounded odd, almost as though this booming male voice was misspeaking the language. I was practically offended by the very idea. Why, though, I wasn't sure.

"Prepare thyself, weakling, to embrace your ultimate fate!" roared the leader at Sal, the closest to both the crowd and the dumpster. Several members of the congregation moved forward and lifted his post to bring him toward that fucking bizarre dumpster.

I had no real opening to attack, but I couldn't let them do anything to Sal, but while I was busy being paralyzed by indecision, they hefted Sal's post up over the lip of the dumpster and he hung as though from a spit roast. The leader began chanting random, seemingly nonsense words.

I had no choice, I needed to do something NOW!

27 May, 2013

Unseen Events

"Okay, it feels like four days have passed, Mr. Dillinger. Are you ready now?" Allendriel was reclining in his theatre chair, looking over me, and I felt like he was staring right through me. Diego had been staring at the remains of the scene in front of us, Tandamum's grave looking almost peaceful, and Sal was still unconscious. I was beginning to think something was wrong.

"Uh, yeah. I'm good to go. Diego?"

"Ready. Let's do this. I'm ready to get out of here." Allendriel sat up, locking the seat back, and clapped his hands, rubbing them together.

"Right!" he began, "One interesting subplot, coming up!" As he finished speaking, the ash tree shrunk until it disappeared down Tandamum's throat. He then, as though in a state of rewinding, got back up onto his feet in the exact manner that he fell. Being covered in small flowers and buds sort of took the edge off his evil, but only slightly, and when they disappeared, I saw a gleam of madness in his face I had missed the first time through.

His body eventually spit both Pacifi and Luma back out, and the latter began hopping around Tandamum, striking blows and throwing spells when openings were made. It looked incredibly bizarre to me, and I felt like I was losing my balance. Her bounces and movements seemed impossible given the speed and direction in which she moved.

It was then that I realized that the dialogue they shared was also being rewound. It sent chills down my spine, and looking at Diego, I could see he felt the same. I was fairly confident he was thinking back to our teenage years and playing records backwards. Every time, neither of us slept for four days afterward.

When the rewinding process finally finished, and "play" was pushed again, Tandamum was standing over Pacifi, laughing. I really didn't want to watch him destroy goodness again, but apparently this is where Allendriel's mysterious side-story takes place.

"So what are we looking for this time?" I asked.

"Watch Pacifi. She'll show you," responded our demonic tour guide. With that, he waved his hands and the picture distorted, and I vomited. It was some sort of non-Euclidean movement in which everything bent and warped around us, leaving us on the other side of the action. The wall at Pacifi's back had become like a viewscreen, little more than a foot in front of us.

The shaft of light speard Tandamum's shoulder, and he roared to the heavens. Luma landed nimbly once again, but my attention was brought back to the legless woman on the ground. She had her hands behind her back, and she was pricking her finger with what appeared to be a sharpened stone.

When she finally broke the skin, reaching blood, she worked more out of the wound and began tracing her fingers along the wall. On our side of the wall, it looked like a bizarre set of runes and hieroglyphs. Diego gasped.

"Luma taught her magick!"

"She must have. Heh, I guess that also further demonstrates the difference between Pacifi and Tandamum," I reasoned.

"Shut up and watch, you two." Allendriel sounded agitated. It was a brief, but sudden change in his demeanor, but even Diego could have noticed it.

"What's up, Allendriel?" I guess he did. Before Allendriel could answer, though, Sal disappeared in a enormous upward burst of air. All three of us shouted and stood. Pacifi, Tandamum, and Luma stopped moving.

"Where did he go, demon?" I yelled. "Where?" Before any of us knew what was going on, Diego was up in Allendriel's face, getting ready to inflict violence on his person. In response, the air temperature around us grew to a blistering heat.

"Sit. Watch. I'll return." Allendriel disappeared in a wisp of smoke. Meanwhile, Diego was screaming and hollering, and I just felt faint.

Burning, burning, burni-

"Jim, don't fall apart on me now!" Diego roared, smacking me across the face. "Sal's disappeared and goddamned Allendriel is making us watch Pacifi! Keep it together!" He not-so-calmly explained from so far away, at the end of a long tunnel. He smacked me again.

"Wake up! Come on, Jim! Don't do this to me now!" As he kept up the EMT's creed to a dying patient, I felt a coolness suddenly wash over me. It felt so amazing.

I don't know how much time passed, but when my orgasmic bliss ended, I noted three things. First, I needed to change my underwear, as 'orgasmic' wasn't hyperbole. Second, Diego was sitting in his own chair, two down from me. Finally, Pacifi was sitting between us, in Sal's seat.

What?

I pulled myself up, and they both turned to me, concern plastered all over their faces. Pacifi spoke first.

"Oh, my dear James, brave warrior, seemingly insurmountable odds are ahead of you. It is already upon you. The child is taken, and the Fallen is losing his grip. It is up to the two of you to save them both. The evil in you is close to awakening, but you can fight it. The strength is inside of you." She smiled as she sat back. It was a warm smile, and it reminded me of how Tilly looked at me.

"Wh-what are we watching you for, Pacifi? Allendriel seems very interested in watching what you did behind your back while your pupil fought Tandamum." I still felt like all of my nerve endings were switched to the "pleasure" setting. It was going to suck when this ended.

"He wanted you to see my saving the planet, keeping good alive. I molded three clay figures and gave them more than just a little of my spark, saving only enough for my final measure." She looked a little sad at that, and it made me want to hold on to her and keep reassuring her of just how okay it was all going to be until I could no longer speak.

"Wait," began Diego, "Allendriel wanted us to see that so we...would...understand...that there is always a way to win, even if we may die?"

"More or less, my child," Pacifi responded before looking back on the battle. "Now, though, I shall send you back to where you came from, so that you may save the Fallen and the child."

"Can you not come with us?" I asked. "You don't have to die here!"

"Oh, but I do, James. I do. Always remember that Pacifi and Luma perished in the fight against evil, but you might survive your final encounter with it. Do not give up hope, my darling dears." She held both my hand and Diego's, and I felt a gentle warmth spread up my arm, as though it were carried in on a zephyr. I closed my eyes to appreciate it better, and when I opened them, Diego and I were back in our sitting room.

Or, what was left of it, rather.

23 May, 2013

The Final Battle Between Good and Evil

After Diego, Sal, and I stopped screaming, we came to the realization that we were no longer in our front room. Nor were we on fire. We were outside, and it was dark. Standing up from the dirt and looking around, I saw that we were in some kind of small village with stone buildings, whose burning roofs lit up the night sky. The village looked familiar somehow, but I couldn't quite place the reason.

"Well, boys, we finally snapped. After inhaling too much fumigation gas, we hallucinated being attacked by plants and burned our house down." I sighed. "Welcome to hell, I guess."

Diego got up next, placed his hands behind his head, and began walking in a small circle around us, surveying the carnage. The look on his face definitely implied that he had no idea he would ever wind up here, and that he wasn't ready to accept the fact that he actually was. As soon as he finished the circle, he just dropped to his knees and began praying to the Goddess.

I kind of felt bad for the guy, but not as bad as I did for Sal, whose turn it was to rise and take stock of his surroundings. He actually looked scared, as he cast his eyes toward the sky.

"I take it back! That curse was something I only said in anger! I'm so sorry, James, I'll-"

"Jim," I interrupted, but he continued as though he didn't even hear me. Damn it. Even in hell I can't catch a break.

"-never do it again, I swear!" Sal began crying then, as he walked over to me and put his arms around my shoulders. I was too stunned to move or say anything, so I just let him get it out. He obviously needed it.

A few moments later, Sal pulled back from the hug, and looked me in the eye. "Do I still have to call you boss, or am I still obligated to call you that until I turn eighteen?"

I almost laughed. "Well, you'll never technically turn eighteen now, and besides, I think even demon lords want their houses to look better than each other's." The thought of the sort of preening that went on in our gated community being practiced by people with titles such as 'Defiler' or 'the Plaguebringer' made me laugh out loud.

"Hell's landscapers," laughed Sal. "Imagine making it back to Earth after that? Do you think we could use that as part of our marketing campaign?"

The both of us lost it then, doubling over in laughter. It was hysterical, but maybe we could do something else if we ever got back to the land of the living, as Diego and I were independently wealthy, which-wait, if we're dead, then once we get back, we'll have no access to our money. We'd have to start from scratch! I sighed.

"Holy shit! Jim, Diego, look over there! There are two people! Two...ladies! Who says hell will be so bad, eh? Ha ha!" He started walking over to them while Diego and I followed from a little ways back.

The whole situation felt strange to me. Mostly because I still had a pulse, but also because as we walked to the women, there was no heat coming off the flames. I even reached out to touch the fire, but my hand passed right through it, completely unburned. Either way, it was like I said: Strange.

Even the women themselves were odd. One, obviously younger than the other, stood proud and tall, golden hair braided. She held a long ash branch in one hand, and a main gauche in the other. Her golden armor hid her frame, but from what I could see, she looked slim. She had two swords hanging from her, one on her hip, and one on her back, with a large, round shield hanging over it all.

The older woman looked incredibly peaceful, but that was the second thing I noticed. The first thing was the fact that she was in some sort of primitive-looking wheelchair because she had no legs, save for maybe a quarter of her thighs, and that was being generous with the estimation. She was dressed in robes, and had no weapon with which to defend herself. I immediately wondered what it would be like to converse with her.

"Jim! Diego! They're not real! The women are illusions! This really is hell!" My thoughts were scattered to the wind.

"Sal, stop wailing, and stop occupying the same space as the beautiful woman. You're making me see non-Euclidean shapes. I may go mad and see into forever because of it."

"Cthulu reference? In hell?" Diego asked.

"Yeah."

"Nice."

"I thought so, too." I opened my mouth to say more, but I was interrupted before I got a chance.

"You three really are the morons you come across as, aren't you?" Allendriel's voice sighed from behind us. We whirled around to see someone who didn't look entirely dissimilar to Mr. Marsailles with tiny horns, folded wings, and red skin that looked as though it had a sandy texture to it walking up to us. In a suit. We all screamed, and Sal even fainted, but Allendriel just sighed again.

"Look, you already had it figured out that I wasn't Edvard, and that I had otherworldly origins, so could you guys just grow a pair already? Jesus H. and all the saints, you people are fucking ridiculous."

"What, aren't we in hell?" Diego asked.

"You're not even dead, idiot."

"What about all the flames in the front room then?" I asked.

"Can't I have a tendency to be dramatic, or is that a purely human notion?"

"All right, all right," Diego put his hands up in a gesture of mock surrender, "we get it, you're here, and proud, or whatever. No need to get all catty with us."

"Look, I'm trying to show you something, so go to the other side of the street and shut up, or you might miss something." Diego and I picked up Sal by the arms and carried him over to where we would be watching whatever it is Allendriel wanted us to watch.

Like an announcer introducing a play, he whooshed in front of us, and began recapping his story thus far.

"Tandamum had completely devastated the planet. Fields and forests burned, water turned into poison. All creatures either worked for him or died. In cold blood, Tandamum had single-handedly eradicated almost all known life when he found Pacifi, a woman with the spark of creation opposed to his spark of destruction, and two young twin girls, Luma and Nox, the all-plane's first mages.

"Pacifi made the deal of her life when she offered a duel between the girls when they became of age, as she was physically incapable of fighting. Each spark-bearer would raise one of the girls, and whomever raised the more powerful warrior mage would become the victor, controlling the fate of the planet.

"When we were last updated on their situation, Luma and Pacifi had just arrived on the battlefield, and were awaiting their dark opposites. Here is where we pick up our story!" With that, he bowed low, and walked up next to us in a row of four theatre seats that had suddenly appeared, facing the two women we had seen upon arriving here.

"Sit, and enjoy the show, boys. It's going to be astounding." Allendriel wasn't even looking at us anymore as he spoke, keeping his eyes steadfast on the illusory women. Diego and I heaved Sal into a seat before plopping into two of our own on either side of him. I sat between him and Allendriel, just in case the bastard tried anything.

When the last of us was seated, buckets of popcorn, sodas, and snacks all appeared in our laps and cupholders in the space of a blink. I looked at Allendriel, and he was suddenly wearing those cheesy cardboard 3-D glasses with the red and blue cellophane. He put a finger over his lips and shushed me. In the space of another blink, I was wearing a pair of 3-D glasses of my own, and I turned to Sal and Diego, who looked just as dumbfounded as I was.

"Look!" whispered Diego, pointing ahead of us as I was staring at him and Sal. I turned to face where he was pointing in time to see the two women shimmer and become solid. I was shocked to discover that I could hear them breathing.

"Patience, Luma," said the woman in the wheelchair, whom I was now assuming to be Pacifi, "your sister will be here soon. Her abductor swore to me on this spot, sixteen years ago, that he would bring her here."

Her voice was so soothing. It had the sound of someone running their hand over a smooth stone, which is when I remembered that this was a story of people made of stone. I leaned forward in my chair.

"Oh, Pacifi, I don't even remember her over the flames. All I can remember from that day is the burning, burning, burning of the village." Luma looked pained.

"Easy, my child. Listen, I think I hear their approach! On your guard!" There was a whistling sound in the air. The source was out of their line of sight, but we could see it clearly over the tops of the buildings behind them. Coming straight at us was a glowing blue-green dot. As it grew closer, it arced over the rooftops and down, making a 90-degree turn, directly between Luma and Pacifi. As it struck the ground, it exploded in a giant ball of bluish-green fire that sent the student into and through the wall of the closest building, and the teacher into the ground, off her wheelchair, into the mud.

Burning, burning, burning, BURNING!

The overwhelming fear dissipated moments later, in time for me to witness something incredible. A man was slowly (in comparison to the fireball, anyway) descending to the ground. I couldn't believe how massive this guy was. He looked like he could do curls with our golf cart.

As he touched down, I didn't need my eyes to know where he was, as his aura was all-pervasive and...familiar....

"Tandamum!" screamed the woman in the dirt, as she pushed herself up into a sitting position. "Where is Nox? You swore on your life that you'd bring her to this meeting!" Tandamum just laughed in response.

At this time, the front door to the building blew out of the frame at a weird angle, straight toward the aggressor. Luma then calmly stepped out, back into the street, sheathing the main gauche.

"Show me my sister!" The last word was almost barked out, and it caused Tandamum's head to rock to the side away from Luma. He was holding on to the ear closest to her, his left, as he leveled his head again. Glaring at her, he pulled his hand away, and looked at it.

"First blood," he was speaking at an awkward volume, and favoring his right ear. Interesting. I didn't have time to process it, as Luma had decided not to wait for her sister to show. She was going to make the abductor regret ever taking Nox, by driving the butt of her staff into his sternum, then swinging it around to connect with the bleeding ear.

All the while, Tandamum just stood in the same spot, taking each attack. Even when Luma went for the groin, all he did was deflect the blow. Luma began darting around Tandamum like a superbly-trained acrobat, striking at different spots, and he would just absorb it, soaking up the damage.

"Pacifi, did you not know how it would end? All you did was buy yourself an extra sixteen years in which to quake and quiver. Now, your champion shall meet her match. After all, how powerful could she be? There was literally no one for her to spar against." Tandamum was, unfortunately for Luma, seemingly unaffected by each strike, if relying on his calm demeanor as he chatted with Pacifi, moving toward the woman on the ground.

"Tandamum, show us Nox Magi now, or the inherent power in the contract shall punish you!" Pacifi shouted, which actually caused the mountain in a man suit to stop walking.

"You truly want to see Nox?"

"Yes, of course!"

"Then you-" he paused as he reached out and grabbed Luma by the throat, stopping her in her tracks, "-need to hold still." Tandamum, based on Luma's reactions, began squeezing on her throat, cutting off the airway. I started to rise out of my seat, when Allendriel grabbed my wrist.

"Stay seated, as there is nothing to be done here. You are effectively watching a recording. This happened many millenia ago, James. Sit." I sat back down, furious that I couldn't help.

Meanwhile, Tandamum had grabbed both of Luma's ankles in his other hand, raised her over his head, and threw her into the sky with little to no effort. At the speed she was traveling, it would, relatively, be a while before we saw her again. I swallowed hard.

"I am showing you Nox, my dear Pacifi. I am strong, very strong, and powerful, very powerful, but I could not do all this on my own. I have consumed the child mage!"

"You ate her?"

"He ate her?" Pacifi, Diego and I exclaimed our respective versions of that statement at the same time, in the same pitch. When we looked at Allendriel, he just put one index finger over his lips, and pointed the other at Tandamum.

"In a sense, I did. Not literally, of course. It was a ritual she discovered. It fuses two beings into one, and the one with the stronger will is dominant. There could be no other choice, obviously. I now have Nox's arsenal, as well as my own, at my disposal! I would command you to kneel before me, Pacifi, but...hehah!"

As soon as the last bit of laughter escaped his lips, a giant shaft of light, about as big around as my arm, bolted down from the sky, and pierced Tandamum's shoulder, lancing out through his arm pit, and into the ground. He roared in pain, and reached to grab the shaft of light, but he could not touch it without burning himself.

Not even ten seconds after the shaft struck the ground, so did Luma, landing on her feet. Her leather boots, breeches, and shirt had signs of being on fire recently: gaping holes and crisp, darkened spots of what remained. Had she truly been thrown through the atmosphere? And where had her breast plate and swords gone?

No sooner did I think that did a red-hot lump of steel impact the ground in front of us, as well as two somewhat smaller and thinner rods of steel. Suddenly I wished I could help more than I ever had, but I didn't have to wait long before Luma was back in control, if only briefly.

With Tandamum unable to remove his leash and his left arm useless, the women definitely had the upper hand here. Light began emanating from Luma's hand until I could no longer see it. As she raised it level with her foe's chest, she spoke.

"Tandamum, you are a murderer. You have taken the only true family I had remaining, and you killed her! For that, I will tear you limb from limb! Have you any final words?" Her voice was firm, powerful, and she had everyone's attention. Too bad Sal was still passed out, as she had more holes in her shirt than she had actual shirt. Tandamum must have noticed this as well, as his tactic changed.

"I can relinquish control of your sister, Luma. If you truly wish our species to survive, you cannot kill me! You need my seed! I will release Nox in exchange for that!"

"You will give me my sister back, and you will die!" She pointed two fingers directly at his heart.

"You have until the count of ten, Tandamum! One...two...three...." He remained motionless until Luma got to seven, then he spit his black saliva on her face, which acted more like rubber cement than saliva in that it clung to her high cheekbones and slightly upturned nose. As she pulled to remove it, it would spread.

Soon, she couldn't open her mouth. Her eyes had gone wide, and whatever spell she had been preparing had dissipated. She had begun panicking. In a bid of desperation, she just ran up to her prisoner and began punching and kicking him as hard as she could, and just like when they first squared off, he took the abuse, unblinkingly.

That is, until he had apparently had enough of her teenage whining, and dropped his fist from a windmill spin directly on top of her head. Instantly, she crumpled. As she did, the shaft of light dissipated, and Pacifi began weeping, as her life was now over.

"Finally!" Tandamum roared. "The end is come!" He marched over to Luma's limp body and knelt down over her, turning to Pacifi.

"She is mine, spark of creation. What do you think I should do?"

"Let her go! Take me instead! Just...please! She is so young!"

"And she is still ripe, my counterpart." With that, he slid his hands beneath her body, and began chanting in the same heavily accented English I heard Allendriel speak in our front yard. After several minutes, Tandamum pressed his conquest to his chest, and she began to melt into him. I felt like vomiting.

"You monster! You will not survive this day!" Pacifi screamed. Tandamum turned to face her, licking his lips.

"She tasted delicious," he said as he walked toward the woman with no legs.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a second!" Diego exclaimed as the story paused. "How can this douchebag win? Is the moral of this story that evil really does win every once in a while?" I looked from him to Allendriel. It was a good question.

"Just watch, human," said our story teller, resuming his tale. Tandamum walked over to Pacifi, and picked her up incredibly gingerly. She wasn't fighting, and the dead look in her eyes made it look like she had completely given up fighting at all, hanging limply in his arms.

"It won't be that bad, I promise. Just relax, and it will all be over soon." This guy sounded like a rapist or something. What the fuck. I wanted to go over and beat the shit out of this guy, but apparently I couldn't have laid a glove on him, even if I had been there when this story was actually happening. Looking at Diego, I could tell he felt the same.

Tandamum held Pacifi to his chest, and began chanting again. When he was finished, and she began melting into him, something amazing happened: Pacifi fought back. She began her own brand of chanting. It hurt my ears, but it caused Tandamum to fall backwards onto the ground.

As Pacifi disappeared into his chest, her attacker began sprouting buds and grass and even flowers. It rippled up his chest and down his back. Whatever it was that was happening to him was clearly a one-time-use move. He opened his mouth to scream, but an ash tree sprouted out of it, breaking his neck.

It was ten minutes before anyone said anything at all, Allendriel included. We were all in shock. Well, Diego and I were, anyway. Sal was still out, and who knows how many times Allendriel had watched this. He looked more thoughtful than anything else.

"Before either of you says anything, there is one more piece to this story, the part you didn't see going on at the same time as this. Actually, it happened right here, but no one ever notices it until it's pointed out. You ready to see the final piece of the story?"

"Whoa, Allendriel," I began, "after the intensity involved in that, I think I need some time to comprehend it. Give me about a day, okay? Then we'll be ready."

21 May, 2013

Allendriel's Tale

"A long, long time ago, there was a race of people, made of clay and earth and stone, that inhabited this planet. They were a race of nomads, these little lumps of rock, gifted with the spark of sentience from the divine progenitor, personified however you wish, but never actually an entity of its own. It was always just there, like time.

"At times, there would be a member of a species across the vastness of all things that would possess more of the creative essence. Such people became glorified, deified, amongst his, her, or its own kind, and he would rule for the rest of his lifetime. I have seen many such kingdoms rise and fall.

"Sooner or later, due to the eventual balancing of all things, there began to be people born of the opposite ability: where one was creation and life, these new people were entropic in nature, born only to destroy. The first record of such, despite others coming before him, is of Tandamum Fel, whose birth killed his mother. The subsequent grief drove his father mad and he wound up slaughtering the whole tribe, Tandamum strapped to his back.

"Tandamum's father, Champion, became his son's proxy in all matters until Tandamum became of age in their society, and exactly fifteen years after his birth, his father committed suicide, and took out another two tribes in the process.

"From that point on, Tandamum wandered the planet he lived on, ending the life of anything he came in contact with as he saw fit. He was truly a force to be reckoned with. Twenty years after he began wandering, he had become a dark legend to his people, a warning, and a curse. Several pretenders to his throne, who wound up accelerating the genocide he had begun all those years ago by doing the exact sae thing he was, only by forcing recruits into service.

"Another ten or so years passed, and still the planet-wide rampage continued. Soldiers began turning on each other, as innocents were becoming more and more difficult to come by. The planet had become nothing but a war zone, fires raged across continents, corpses lay strewn everywhere. Even the ocean had begun turning caustic. The very planet was rebelling against Tandamum Fel and the darkness he carried.

"Another five years after this, Tandamum was so close to achieving pure nihilism. There was only one village left standing in his way. The first village, where the first person known to exist on the planet, drew her first breath. As I'm sure you can imagine, Tandamum then set his sights on this village.

"Little did he know that there was a correction to the all-plane meant to draw even more balance to itself: a pair of twelve-year-old girls, Luma and Nox Magi. As well as the creation-being. Unfortunately for this village, the creation-being, Pacifi, was physically unable to fight off Tandamum, so when it was her turn to taste the axe, she challenged him to a long-game style duel.

"The story says that Tandamum accepted the terms, but I don't buy it."

"Just tell us the story, Allendriel," I sighed. For someone who said there wasn't much time left, he sure was wasting a lot of it.

"Anyway, the way the story continues is that, as the last four people left on the planet, both Pacifi and Tandamum would raise one of the twins, and they would duel when they became of age, in sixteen years. The reason Pacifi chose them was because the twins had access to powers even greater than either her or Tandamum: magick. The reason they were the correction to the oversight that was the two of them was that they were given the ability to choose which side they worked for.

"So, sixteen years pass, and on the twins' eighteenth birthday, everyone returned to their meeting ground in the center of the first village. Pacifi and Luma were the first to arrive, the younger's armor sizzling, and the elder's nerves racked with guilt for the decision she had made, but it was the only way to protect the few lives that were left." He paused.

"This part is better shown than explained. Also, it's quicker."

Before any of us could protest, Allendriel sat forward in his chair, extended an arm, and filled the room with flames.

Terms of Employment

"Wait...um...what?" Edvard Marsailles, crotchety old neighbour, former (maybe) Nazi, the only real competition Diego and I had for the Greenest Lawn Competition, and primary sponsor of the Green Thumbs, our direct rival in the Lawn Games, was dead? How? And why am I getting so choked up?

"Ah, I see this news comes as a shock to you." It must have been displayed on our faces. Maybe former Nazi Edvard Marsailles' corpse continued. "For what it's worth, he died suffering. It was truly quite gruesome, I assure you. Even for me. Would you like to know the details?" He looked almost anxious to tell us.

"No! You sick fuck, did you murder him?" Sal was shouting at the new resident of Mr. Marsailles' body.

"Hah! Oh, no, child!" chuckled the possessed body. "He just called out to me as he faded from life. Now, shall we retire to your den for refreshments and polite conversation, or shall I convince your weeds to devour you? I really don't want to do that, you know. Truly. The paperwork involved-"

"Fine! Come in, then. Or are you like a vampire, needing a more formal invitation?" I choked out. No sympathy for the devil's paperwork.

"No, Mr. Dillinger, that will suffice. I hereby grant you my word as that of the Guest-" There was something about the way he said that word that made me think that there actually was something to this oath he was making. "-that neither you, nor yours, shall come to harm by direct or indirect action on my behalf." With that, he old-man-shuffled up the pathway that bisected our lawn, right up to the steps of the porch, at which point, he looked up at the three of us standing in his way, and said, "Well?" with the grin of a man who knew much more than he was letting on.

We turned around and silently led him to our front room, more than a little nervous about how this whole situation was going to play out. Controlling those murderous weeds was a trick I don't think we could have easily beat. Upon entering the room, he barked a word that sounded almost like 'chair,' but with an accent that very much muddled the actual word, and the vines slithered into the room and began assembling themselves into the vague shape of an armrest.

All at once, Diego, Sal, and I sat on the sofa, and stared at our evil guest, bewildered. It was all I could do to not laugh at the absurdity of it all. Diego cleared his throat, apparently more able to readily accept what was going on than either Sal or I.

"What's going on, former Mr. Marsailles?"

"A question for a question, then? We must hurry. There are days, at the most, left."

"Yes, fine. Question for question," Diego responded.

"Deal. As far as what is going on, well..." he paused to think. "Your...hiatus will most likely cost you your lives if it continues. Your neighbourhood rests above the burial ground of an ancient evil. Your source of employment was not of your own choosing. You were drawn here because you three are presently the most apt to keep the evil at bay. Your refusal to do your job, while noble in your reasoning, will doom the planet. My question: What would it take to get you three back to work?"

We all just looked at each other, mouths agape for several minutes.

"That's too big. Too big of a weight to be on only our shoulders. Three slackers against an ancient evil? That's unimaginable! For chrissakes, we barely even know what we're doing half, no most, of the time! Who are you to make this request of us?" I felt my voice tremble as I spoke, but this was something that needed to be said, and I couldn't just let it go on anymore. Not to mention that our free will had been sapped in order to contain something that was evil on such a supposedly unimaginable scale.

"I am...Allendriel, the Fallen. I have made it my duty to ensure that the evil never gets out, and will do whatever I have to in order to continue on this path. Who do you think you are, to put your own lives above the lives of literally everything you've ever known?"

"I already told you: we're three slackers from California who can barely feed ourselves, let alone-wait, a Fallen? I'm no religious scholar, but aren't you supposed to be on the side of said evil?"

Allendriel shifted slightly, possibly uncomfortably, in his seat. "Every fiber of my being wants to release that which lies here, but, well, have you ever read 'Good Omens'?"

"You've grown to like existing, haven't you?" Sal replied, ignoring the looks of shock Diego and I were giving him at the revelation that he knew how to read. He turned to us and began explaining his answer. "In the novel, there's an angel and a demon, I forget their names, but they both work for the...uh...Almighty plan, but they pretty much bungle the Apocalypse because they want to continue their own existences. Allendriel is in the same boat."

"Yes, you could say that," he leaned back in his vine chair and sighed. What were we going to do about this?

"How do we fight it?" I asked.

"The evil that's buried here? You don't."

"Comforting. Why us?"

"Again? Because you three are the most capable of doing this."

"Based on what, exactly?" Allendriel went silent. I'm not entirely certain that was a good thing. In fact, I was willing to bet on it.

"I am going to tell you a story, gentlemen, and afterwards, tell me what you think."

20 May, 2013

Axis v. Allies

I don't want to die! Whether I screamed it or just thought it didn't matter, as I was going to bite it here, regardless. Shit, I didn't even make it to Tilly's divorce. Also, some more irony: Diego, Sal, and I spent the last three years killing weeds, and weeds were just about to be the death of us. That's some circle of life bullshit, that is. Also, if, by some miracle, I survive this, I'm going to throat-punch a vegan. Or vegetarian. I'm not picky. It's pretty fucked up, the things that cross your mind when you're about to die.

As I was making peace with the Goddess, eyes squeezed shut, a voice called out from the street. It wasn't a shout or a scream, but a commanding voice. Even I felt a twinge of obedience flow through me. "Stop!" the voice exclaimed. It was a familiar voice, but I could not place from where. I braced myself for strangulation by thistle, as that was how I had always killed them, but when a minute had passed since the voice commanded this murder scene to stop and nothing happened, I peeked open a wary eye.

Diego and Sal were huddled on the stoop, the dickheads. If we got out of this, I was going to have to give them a punch for not including me in their death huddle, and leaving the burn victim to fend for himself.

The thrashing weeds in the front yard were now simply swaying in the breeze, which reminded me why I was so eager to get outside in the first place. I spun on my heel and saw the thistle vine snaked along the wall, like some sort of demonic hanging creeper. I reached up to touch it, because it seemed like the thing to do, and it shied away from me.

"What the-?" I spun back around and nudged my friends, who looked up, then around. Sal gasped out a laugh.

"We're alive! Sweet Jesus, we're alive!" he screamed before dropoing to his knees and kissing the ground. Diego, on the other hand, whipped around to face me, then buried me in a big, happy hug.

"Ack!" I barely managed to get out. "Can't....breathe...Di...e...go...can't...!" At this point, he let me go, grinning from ear to ear. I put my hands on my knees and bent over to catch my breath.

Before I sucked in my third deep breath, however, the voice from the street began talking again.

"Imbeciles, why is this lawn in such disarray? This neighborhood? Do you not know where you are? Who you represent?" Why was that voice familiar?

Unable to look up, as I was too busy regathering my composure, I answered him between gasps.

"Whom, actually. You meant to ask us if we knew whom we represented. It wasn't correct in my context, but-"

"Silence, moron, and answer my question." I looked from the ground to Diego to Sal, and eventually to the source of the voice, once I finally regained normal breathing patterns. Then I lit up a smoke. As did Diego. We can be stress smokers.

"Mr. Marsailles? You can barely talk without your breath mask! How can you summon up such a commanding voice?" I asked. And how can you control these demonic plants? I'll save that one for later. He looks pissed.

"You will answer my questions first, custodian, and then, if your answers are satisfactory, I shall answer yours." Diego and I shrugged at each other while Sal just sat down on the edge of the stoop with a stunned look on his face.

"What were your questions again, Mr. Marsailles?" Diego asked. I couldn't remember them, either. A near-death experience will jar the memory a bit.

"Explain the poor condition of this neighborhood. Quickly, as you are trying my patience," Mr. Marsailles stated with a subtly nervous air about him.

"Uh...putting aside the fact that you already know what's going on, but just in case dementia has finally wrapped its icy claws around you, a week ago, Jim was almost burned alive when our lawn caught fire. The fire marshal declared it arson, but no one from the community will come forward to claim responsibility, so Sal and I went on strike while he was in the hospital, and we're going to continue the strike until someone comes forward."

"You fools!" Mr. Marsailles bellowed. "Do you know what you're a hair's breadth from doing? You truly are every bit as moronic as Edvard Marsailles believes you to be!"

"What?" I shrieked. "Edvard? Diego, Sal, did either of you know Mr. Marsailles' given name?" They both shook their heads. Sal then stood up and held up his index finger to our crotchety neighbour in the symbol of 'wait a minute,' and huddled with us.

"A Frenchman with a German name? At his age? Guys, Mr. Marsailles has always been grumpy because his side lost the war!" Sal hissed. Diego and I looked at Mr. Marsailles, then back to the huddle. "What war?" we asked simultaneously.

"The war! Think about it! He's the perfect age! Mr. Marsailles is a goddamn Nazi!" Diego and I took a step back, like we were punched. It did make sense. After the three of us took a beat to let this new information sink in, we turned back to face him. He sighed.

"Okay, crash course time. Edvard Marsailles is dead. I am inhabiting his body. Invite me in so we can talk in private. Time is of the essence."

15 May, 2013

Aftereffects/The Next Day/Home Invasion

Ed. note: In apology for missing two days and being late today, I decided I would give you guys an extra long, almost triple-length, chunk of the story. Enjoy!

I sat through Dr. Mann explaining the severity of the burns patiently, trying not to lose hope in my plans for a modeling career. Maybe I could be like that guy who has the skull tattoo on his face, but is still a model. Apparently he was hired because he'll stand out in people's memories. Clever.

Anyway, the rest of my hospital stay was a blur. There was a physical therapy appointment scheduled for next week, how to care for the burned flesh until it fully healed instructions, and a whole bunch of other things I don't remember now.

The next fully clear memory I have is sitting in Diego's Jeep Wrangler with him and Sal. Since I wasn't Sloth-like in appearance, I apologized for threatening to kill him, but if his hex ever did bear fruit, I'd skin his face and wear it instead. He looked nervous after that, but now, he just sat in the back seat, sipping his Big Gulp.

It was our start-of-the-season ritual, getting the largest size of Big Gulps and running around on a sugar high. I was thankful for the cold drink, but didn't think I'd be doing any running around today. I looked at my giant plastic cup in the modified (to hold it) passenger-side cup holder, and just stared into the sugary goodness. It offered relief, so I picked it up and rested it between my forearms.

The chill was barely there, a sign of the nerve damage Dr. Mann told me about, but what little coldness seeped through took the edge off the (psychosomatic, the good doctor said) burning I still felt. It felt like my arms were incredibly warm, like I left only them in the sun for an extended period, but the Big Gulp helped somewhat.

Despite that, though, most of my thoughts kept returning to the lawn fire. The heat I felt when I ran between the two halves of the lawn, the nerve I didn't know I had to smash the window and reach into the fire to attach the hose. The utter destruction of my lawn that I had worked so hard and so long to make, wrapped in that fiery embrace that also held me for an unknown amount of time, I never asked.

Burning, burning, burning, burning, BURNI--

"Jim? You there? I'll call you James if it gets your attention, I swear it!" I hadn't noticed that Diego was calling my name. I jerked in the seat. We were home. Sal wasn't even in the Jeep anymore. Diego was standing next to me, outside his Jeep, with the door open.

"Wh-what? I'm here! What?" Diego twitched back in surprise as I almost screamed at him.

"Dude, are you okay?"

"Yes! No, I don't know. I think the fire fucked my brain up pretty bad." I rubbed my temples as I spoke. I felt like I was going to be sick.

"Don't say that too loudly. Mr. Marsailles wants to kick us out of our jobs due to mental incompetence."

"Fuck him, Diego! I was almost burned alive! Do you really want me to focus on the petty bullshit of some wrinkly old geezer who's going to bite it within two years at the most? Fuck! That!" I swung my feet out of the vehicle and brushed by him, storming across the charred remains of our lawn, up the front steps, and into the new front door.

I needed to cool down and rest. So I did. I went to bed at noon, and was perfectly okay with that. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep almost instantly.

....

The next day, I woke up at ten in the morning. My twenty-two-hour nap did a lot to restore my sanity. I felt glorious until I noticed the bandage on my arms needed to be changed. Sighing, I meandered through the house towards the bathroom. Diego must have been working, as I couldn't find him anywhere.

"I'll find him in a bit. First thing's first," I muttered as I went into the bathroom, and filled up the tub to gingerly soak the bandages in warm water.

Once the water was set, I slowly submerged my arms to the elbows. It felt soothing, so I just sat there for almost an hour, until I noticed that the water temperature had gone down a little, so I began removing the bandages as gingerly as I could.

This was my first real look under the wrappings, and I was horrified. Scared to my very core about what sort of monster I'd become. I cannot afford skin grafts right now, so becoming hideous really doesn't work for me right now.

I pretty much had the bandages off completely before I opened my eyes to see the mess. It was plenty gross, without a doubt, but it was also kind of...hypnotic...in a way. I looked like I was made of melted plastic in that there were swirls and whorls and eddies in my skin. The patterns were, in a very sick sense, beautiful.

"Wow..." I gasped when I fully took in the sight by rotating my arms back and forth to see the whole picture. It was something unreal, the devastation to my arms, horrible and beautiful and strange all at the same time.

Burning, burning, BURNING!

Gasping in pain, I thrust my arms back into the water and it instantly became tinted pink around them, but it was also soothing, to a degree. I wondered how long these phantom burns were going to go on, and immediately feared they would never go away.

I kept my arms submerged for maybe half an hour, just thinking about what I would do from here on out. Maybe Tilly and I could retire someplace cold. That would be very nice. I never thought I'd want to live in the cold, but if this burning sensation continued, it might be the only option.

I sighed, withdrawing the devastation that was the lower halves of my arms, and ever so gently patted them down with a fresh towel. It stung, but I couldn't just sit here forever. Could I? No, I can't start thinking like that! Maybe there was a way around the pain.

"Oh, that would be lovely, wouldn't it, Jim? Just take the easy way out again," I muttered to myself as I rebandaged my atrocities. This was a nightmare, and I wanted out. That's never how it works, though, is it? Right up to the moment before impact, we're left screaming and crying and shitting our pants, a moment of abject humiliation before waking. Thank all that is that it's in the privacy of our own minds.

I eventually made my way downstairs, absorbed in my own thoughts, to make myself brunch. Breakfast burrito? Nah. Pancakes? Nah. Oh! I could use some eggs. I don't know why, but I'm really craving some eggs. I open the fridge to check out our egg situation, but I instead get white hot pain in my forearms that is intense enough to make me lose consciousness for just long enough to fall to the floor.

I pick myself up with just my legs and shuffled over to the island, hopping on top of it. My head was spinning, and I was reeling. My stomach and my brain had no idea whether they wanted to swap places or just perform a contents dump, so I just curled up on the island, and just waited for the cool metal to lower my internal body temperature to something a bit more manageable.

...

The next thing I knew, there was a scream from somewhere far away. I jolted back awake. Sitting up, the microwave clock told me only ten minutes had passed, but I felt like I had slept for decades. I was so very rested, and my body felt as though I were under a vent of cool air, as it started at the top of my head, and there was a slight rippling sensation down my body. The feeling was incredible!

I hopped down from the island, and went toward what I thought was the source of the scream. As I passed into the front of the house I noticed that it was untouched by the flames. How peculiar. I wonder if any of the facade survived the burning. As I passed the main sitting room, I took a couple seconds to stare at the boarded-up window, and I flashed back to launching a chair through it.

"Heh, epic," I chuckled to myself, and turned toward the door, only to have it burst open to let Diego, Sal, and about ten thousand of my hated enemies inside. For the six seconds the door was open, I sneezed four times. Pollen? What?

"JIM! JIM! Oh, thank Christ you're awake!" Saying Sal looked panicked didn't give justice to the look on his face. He made people on submarines taking on water look serene. The three of us had been part of riots more calm than he was right now.

"What's going on, you guys? What was that scream, and where did all of this pollen come from?"

"Dude, look outside. Just look, man. We're so screwed. We're so screwed." Diego was pacing back and forth. Whatever was going on, it had both of them spooked pretty good. I gingerly pulled back a curtain and reflex sneezed before letting out a cry of my own.

"Our...our lawn! It's overrun by weeds! Look at that; I've never seen thistle so large and gangly! How did this happen in a goddamn DAY?" Each word in my question grew in volume until I practically barked out the last one. I don't think I had ever been this furious. Even when Diego slept with my girlfriend did I manage to keep my cool, and again when Sal slept with her, but this...this was too much. I lost my arms, I lost my lawn, after this, I'd probably lose my job and my home.

"Diego! Sal! What the FUCK DID I MISS?" Sal stepped forward. "Tread carefully, as the state I'm in will allow me to snap your neck like a twig."

"Well, Jim, after you were taken to the hospital, and the fire was put out, the fire chief looked over the lawn, and after deliberating with some of the other firemen, they unanimously declared this an arson, but no one in the community would fess up." I felt my fists clench. "So Diego and I decided to go on a strike until someone came clean."

"And let me guess, no one's owning up to it?" I asked through teeth so tightly clenched, I was, for a few moments, afraid they would crumble.

"No, boss." Diego had just been nodding the whole time, or adding in corroborative 'Yeah's where necessary. He looked as pissed as I felt. I wondered if I looked as pissed as I felt.

"Get me my fumigation mask!" I barked at Sal, who scampered off to the basement. When he came back, he had not only my mask, but a look of terror on his face.

"Th...there's a mass of vines and thistle down there that burst in through the cellar wall!" Diego and I just stared at him, then at each other, and finally back at him.

"Everybody out!" someone yelled, and the three of us bounded for the front door, screaming bloody murder. Diego plowed through the door and stopped on the stoop as a thorny whip of thistle and poison ivy leaves slapped at the house.

Sal bumped into his back, and I bumped into Sal. The vines pushed on the cellar door until it exploded into splinters, a process taking no more than 30 seconds, start to finish, and began racing for the front door. These weeds were more than just alive, they possessed a malevolent sentience.

"Keep going, you morons! Just run through! Get to the street!" Apparently my words were useless, as they stood rooted (heh) to the spot. Irony of ironies. I began pushing against the slender youth, and Diego began pushing back.

The vines were closing in....

13 May, 2013

Black Magick and Garden Gnomes

"A few days later, Sally over there's still pissed that it worked out for me, and all he gets is his shaft. Heh. He starts coming in to work dressed all goth-y, talking about how he met some chick at an industrial club downtown that's going to teach him how to take over the world using black magick, and then Tilly'll be his. Or something. It was kind of precious.

"I didn't think anything of it until one day, I was closing up shop and just about to leave when there's a thunk on the door. I go check it out, and there's this garden gnome, about thigh-high, sitting on the stoop. I go next door to ask the security guard what happened, but Cliff's asleep, so he didn't see anything.

"I shrugged. If it was still there in the morning, I'd decide what to do then. As it stood, I had to meet up with Tilly."

"What about Kiera?" my doctor, whose name I either couldn't remember or still hadn't gotten, asked.

"What? Oh, Kiera was only important to this story to set up when it took place."

"I thought you said you were in a-"

"It's not important to why I'm going to murder our young...friend here. Anyway, over the next few days and weeks, more gnomes began appearing. Random times and places, too. All over the gated community. The worst part was that the other residents absolutely loved the tacky little things."

"Aw, come on, Jim," began Diego, "they were cute." Sal nodded in agreement, nervous beneath Diego's firm pin.

"They were hideous! And they turned out...er...I'm getting ahead of myself. Moving on, pretty soon, every surface with enough space inside the office had a gnome. They were sitting in front windows, they were everywhere! Side note, this is also why Emporia Foothills Gated Community's mascot is a garden gnome, because of this incident.

"One day, I had just finished doing some paperwork in the office, and stood up to go outside and have a smoke, when I stood up too quickly and knocked the gnome on my desk over onto the ground, where it broke evenly along a seam I hadn't yet noticed.

"You ready for this? The gnome was hollow. Inside there was some sort of canister that was leaking some kind of smoke. I took a step back, but I wound up inhaling too much anyway. Diego found me later on, passed the fuck out, laying in the doorway, half inside the office shack, half on the pavement.

"So we put on our fumigation masks and broke open another gnome. And another, and another. Eight gnomes later, we surmised they were all Trojan horses for canisters. Something monumental was about to go down at the Foothills, and, to my knowledge, no idea when.

"So Diego and I grabbed some extra gear, hopped into our cart, and tore ass outta there, up the block, collecting gnomes, armfuls of gnomes, when several black vans pulled up to the gate at the bottom of the hill. I radioed Cliff to call the cops and say that the entirety of the Foothills was about to be robbed.

"He thought I was crazy until the gate was ripped from the ground. Fortunately, though, that act sets off an alarm that calls the cops anyway. I thought things were going to get dicey, so Diego and I went to hide. The closest yard was Tilly and her husband's, so I jumped behind their shrubbery and prayed I didn't get murdered on this pillaging of the community.

"As I'm hiding, the gnomes in my arms begin vibrating. There was a pain in my arms as gnome hats started popping off with a strange 'thoonk' sound, so I threw them away from me. One of the hats in Tilly's yard went through her window, so she came out to investigate. I tried waving her back in, but she didn't recognize me with my mask on, and with seconds to spare, I wasn't sure if she'd be okay, so I just ran and tackled her into her living room.

"I took my mask off and gave it to her, opting for the tiny rebreather I grabbed, and told her to hide as gnome hats kept popping off around us. Despite the sort-of decapping not happening simultaneously, all the hats must have been off, as all the canisters began spraying simultaneously.

"'Brave heart, Tilly,' I said before turning around and running back outside to face our attackers. The things a man does for the woman he loves, eh?"

"But...Kiera...?"

"Anyway, I ran outside as one of the vans drove towards the end of the cul-de-sac, and stopped short when he saw me. These thin, wiry fucks get out, and while I may not be very big, I was bigger than they were. I whip out my spades and prepare for a knife fight when my eardrums explode, causing the two from the van to drop.

"I look around, and who do I see? Tilly standing there, pistol leveled and fumigation mask loose. When she falls, I catch her, put her over my shoulder, and grab the gun. Long story short: I saved the day, and got the girl in the end." I winked at the doctor, who looked baffled. With a sigh, I continued my story.

"Either way, when all is said and done, the cops show up to me in a Mexican standoff with these total hacker-types, and then Sally comes up and sees me tending to Tilly and begins spewing mangled Latin at me-serious Harry Potter-type shit.

"Then he tells me that he just placed a physical unattractiveness hex on me, and when I'm least expecting it, I'm going to look like Chunk, from the Goonies. I'm bad at impressions; my 'Hey, you guys' sounds nothing like his."

"Okay, first of all, that was Sloth who said that. Secondly, your face, and vanity, are intact. Wholly. Third-"

"Wait, then which one's Chunk?" I cut the doctor off before she could continue, looking to Diego and Sal.

"Oh, damn," said Sal. "Chunk's the one who grew up to be the one to help Mr. Frodo take the ring to Mordor. He's not bad-looking at all."

"No way, moron. That was Mikey," Diego corrected. "Chunk was Corey Haim." He nodded, as though in self-affirmation.

"What? No, he played Mouth," I said. My doctor looked like she was about to blow a gasket. "Corey Haim wasn't even in the Goonies! That was Corey Feldman! The actor who played Chunk never really went on to do anything else, and it's your arms that are scarred! Not your face!"

I looked down, and for the first time, I noticed the bandages that completely encased my forearms, slightly discolored by blood. What had happened to them?

"Huh. What d'you know? How 'bout that?"

10 May, 2013

Theft, Lies

"Two-and-a-half years ago, approximately six months after Diego and I moved to Emporia, and two weeks into my...uh...relationship with Kiera, we had just hired Sal to our lawn care company, as a credit to the community. He was just some punk kid, almost sixteen, and already in trouble with the law.

"If I ever knew what he did that landed him in my employ, I have since forgotten. I never really cared, as whatever he did, it had no effect on me or mine, so who the fuck cares about the past, yeah? The only thing that matters is where he took his life from that moment on, in my opinion.

"Anyway, it was his third goddamn day when I catch our little convict standing around in between two houses while Diego and I worked, so I go up to him.

"'Hey, kid. I'm not paying you to hold that rake up, y'know.' His response? Just a raised arm, pointing into the house in front of him. I turn to look and there, plain as day through the closed window, is this chick...uh...pleasuring herself.

"No need to blush, doc. I'm sure you do it, too. We're all adults here. Hell, Diego has a girlfriend and he still finds a way to do it a couple times a day. Hell, Sal's a teenager, and I'm a single guy with no real social life, so don't get me started.

"Moving on, as soon as I notice the woman, a milf if ever I saw one, and one of the neighbors I had yet to meet. I shoved Sal to the ground.

"'What the hell is wrong with you, kid? Don't you know anything? You can't just stand there so obvious, moron. She'll close the shades!' So, carefully, the two of us peered back over the windowsill to watch. She went on for a good forty-five minutes. It was pretty ho...uh...anyway, she finishes, mops her downstairs up, dresses, and leaves.

"I've turned to go devise a way of meeting her while pretending to work on her lawn, when suddenly I hear the window opening up behind me. I turn to see how far away Sal is to find that he's halfway into her bedroom window!

"Swearing to myself, I double back to the window to get him out of trouble, like I promised his mum I'd do, but when I get there, he's already inside. I start climbing in after him to coerce him to leave, and when I finally get in, he's made it to her dresser, and has begun to rifle through the top drawer.

"'What the fuck are you doing? Do you want to go back to juvie? We need to get out of here, like, now!' I hissed at him.

"'Easy, pops,' he casually said to me, 'we'll be in and out in no time, just like when I was at your mum's last night.'

"I wasn't having any of that, so I cuffed his ear, causing him to shout. He charged me and tackled, but I'm bigger than he is, so I stopped him. I spun the two of us around, got him in a headlock, pushed the drawer closed, and then started bringing him to the window again when her door opened.

"It was the woman's husband. Apparently he had just gotten home. From MMA practice. In between punches to the head, I was able to explain to him that I was trying to socialize troubled youths and Sal managed to fall off the bandwagon. I managed to make him sound like a real sob story, mostly by telling the goddamn truth.

"To compensate, I said that their lawn would be taken care of, free-of-charge for the summer/autumn. They agreed, thankfully.

"At the end of the workday, I caught Sal huffing something in the corner while he was waiting for his mum to come pick him up. It was a pair of frilly lace panties.

"'Really, kid? You couldn't wait until you got home?' And, I shit you not, maybe five seconds after I snatched them out of his hand, guess who fucking drives up in her spotless SUV whatever?

"When she approaches, she rolls down the window. 'I was looking for those,' she says, and holds out a cupped hand. I put her panties in her hand, she shakes mine with all the gingerness of someone holding a porcelain doll. 'Mathilda,' she says with a wink, withdraws her hand, and slides her panties on, then shifts back into drive.

"It takes me until a minute after she drives off before I realize there's paper in my hand. I open it. 'Tilly,' it says, with a phone number.

"Anyway, that's not part of the story. The next bit is where it really gets interesting."

09 May, 2013

One Week Later....

The sound of a heart-rate monitor beeped someplace far away from me, on the very edge of my hearing. I tried to wave it away, but I was barely able to move my arm before it screamed at me to not be such a goddamn moron. It only lasted a second, before I slipped back into medicated numbness, but it was long enough. My arm hurt. A lot. Come to think of it, my everything hurt. The arm wraps weren't helping.

How did I get here? Why was I here? How long have I been here? Where are my smokes? All of these dire questions raced through my brain as I laid in my bed. I don't think I've ever felt so lost.

The quicker my brain chugged away, the more my body seemed to throb. It didn't hurt as much as I was expecting it to, but it just informed me of its presence. I needed to calm down, pronto. Who knows what happened?

I took a couple deep breaths and slowed myself down. The air smelled almost too-clean, like disinfectant. There was a slight hum from above me, indicating fluorescent lighting, almost masked by the heart-rate monitor. Well, at least I was in a hospital room.

Only one thing to do in a time like this: get the attention of someone who could answer my questions. The sooner that happened, the sooner I could have a goddamn smoke. Clumsily, I fumbled the clip off my index finger, and the monitor started screaming that I had flat-lined.

My doctor must have been just about to check up on me, because I heard, almost instantly, my door opening, accompanied by mad footfalls rushing into my room. I wearily opened my eyes as she stopped short of my bed and breathed a sigh of relief when seeing me awake.

"'Sup, doc?" I mumbled, just before Diego burst into the room, Sal hot on his heels. Eesh, my voice sounded like I'd been a four-pack-a-day smoker since the womb.

"Dude! You're awake! It's about time! Diego's been working me like a slave since you've been in here! It's hell!" Diego shot a glare at Sal that made him step back like a hurt puppy. I laughed as best as I could, but it came out like a raspy bark. The doctor looked concerned, and came over to me.

"Good afternoon. Do you know where you are?"

"Hospital." My throat felt excruciatingly dry. "Water?" She poured me a cup from a pitcher at the end of my bed and handed it to me.

"Good, good," she said with a smile. "What's your name?"

"Jim," I croaked after draining the cup, then held it up. "More." She began looking concerned, but poured me another cup, which I immediately drained. My throat was beginning to feel better already.

"Do you know what the date is, James?" I sighed.

"Jim. It's May...the ninth?" Now it was Diego and Sal's turn to look grim, which could only mean one thing: I missed a significant chunk of time. The doctor opened her mouth to speak, but Diego cut her off.

"Man, it's the sixteenth. You've been unconscious for a week!" My jaw dropped. A whole week...gone. Truly? Well, at least I missed that Neighborhood Council meeting. That seemed like it would have been as boring as listening to Sal tell a story. I said as much. Diego laughed, and Sal just kind of seethed.

"Listen, Mr. Dillinger, I would like to run some tests. You suffered intense trauma when you fell. There was also some...disfiguration."

"Oh, god! I've become Chunk!" I started getting out of bed and Sal almost ran from the room, but Diego pinned him to the wall. "I'm gonna kill you, Sal!" I growled, stumbling down the length of my bed as my doctor stepped between me and my rightful vengeance.

"Step aside, doc! You're a medicine woman and a lady of science; you do good things. This is between me and that black magick fucker, excuse my language!" She looked confused, and maybe a little scared, but to her credit, she stood firm.

"What on earth are you talking about, Mr. Dillinger?" The question sounded like it was all one word, and it took me a couple seconds to decipher. If looks could kill, Sal would be a fine, red mist by now. However, the lady asked me a reasonable question, so I took a few deep breaths, sat down on my bed, and told a tale of theft, lies, black magick, and garden gnomes.

08 May, 2013

Finally, Some Plot!

"Wh-what?" I dropped my cigarette in the grass, but that didn't seem to matter right now. Cliff had to be pulling my leg.

"Please tell me you're pulling my leg, Cliff!"

"You didn't get the radio message?" He held up his walkie-talkie and pointed at it. I picked mine up, made sure it was on, and hit it a few times.

"No, I didn't! This is real? This really happened?" Without waiting for a response, I put the gas pedal on the floor and was able to get up the hill at the top speed of 30, but I didn't need to for the proof; I could smell the flames from the bottom.

Regardless, when I arrived, I saw several members of the community standing around, watching Sal and Diego fighting the flames with buckets and the fire hydrant across the street. If I wasn't so sure that my neighbors didn't like us, I'd say that the were only standing still because they were mesmerized by the...odd coloring of the fire. It was bluish-green.

The fire bobbed and weaved, dancing a drunken dance across the lawn. It was pretty hypnotizing, actually. It took me a couple of seconds to get myself composed enough to do something. I hauled ass to the footpath, hesitating as I approached it. The fire was on both sides, resulting in a scene akin to Moses parting the Red Sea, but fire instead of water. So if he went to hell. I reminded myself to sketch that out later.

I weighed my options. I could either stand here and do nothing, or risked getting baked in the oven that was my lawn in order to get the hose we kept in the front hallway. Taking a glance at my roommate and employee, I saw how hard both of them were fighting, and made my decision. I couldn't just let them do all the work, so I just flat-out ran through the part in the sea of fire, screaming all the way, to let those content to watch know that I was aware of how stupid this decision was.

Within seconds, I was on the front stoop, gasping for air. With no loss of momentum, I stomped the front door in. The hinges screamed in agony as they were ripped from the doorway. I snatched the hose, coiled on a hook, and ran to the living room window. On the way, I grabbed a small wooden chair and underarmed it through the bay windows.

"Goodbye, arms," I whispered through gritted teeth as I leaned outside to attach the hose to the spigot on the outside wall. Flames licked my bare arms as I plunged them in. Whoever is in charge of the grand plan must have admired my bravery (or stupidity), as I couldn't remember exactly where the spigot was, but it turned out to be directly beneath the window.

Also, this was the side of the house that held Diego's strip of a rock garden, so that gave me slightly less than a foot of clearance, but it wasn't as bad as if the flames were directly against the house. A few painful twists of the wrist later, the hose was connected and water was flowing through, out into the front yard.

I stuck my thumb into the opening, to create a spray and felt my muscles relax, if only slightly. We have this under control! Our house will be saved! I could feel myself becoming exhausted, however; the duration of my exposure to the heat was beginning to take its toll on me.

"Not now!" I whispered to myself as my vision blurred. "At least let me keep going until the fire is out!" The ground lurched upward, and I had to put out my arm to keep from finishing the fall. This was not good.

Without warning, something wet and cold drenched my face, waking me back up. I looked up and over the flames to see Cliff with a bucket in his hand. He mimed a wobble before running back to the fire hydrant and getting a refill.

Diego and Sal also shot a concerned look in my direction, but kept pouring water onto our newly obliterated lawn. Progress was being made, however, and none too soon, as it didn't take long for me to begin feeling woozy again.

The next thing to snap me awake, if only barely, was the sound of fire truck sirens in the distance. Hallelujah, I can relax now. At that thought, my vision completely blurred, and I felt a bump on the fronts of my thighs, another on my elbows and face, and finally intense heat and another bump on my back as I pitched forward over the window sill.

Everything went black. I guess some guys really can't ever catch a break.

06 May, 2013

Another Day, Another Dollar

Half an hour later, Sal's mom woke up confused and more than a little angry. She looked from her son, putting a handtowel wrapped around ice on his eye, to Cliff, sipping a cup of coffee, to Diego and I, both of us now wearing blue jeans. All four of us were trying as hard as we could to not look as guilty as we were.

"What on earth happened? Where am I?" Cliff moved to help her sit up, and Diego nudged Sal, who began speaking.

"A streaker had jumped over the fence, mum. He ran by, pushed you over, and then punched me in the eye when I tried to stop him. Mr. Dillinger and Mr. Jones grabbed him and the gatekeeper called the police. They just left." He looked at me, and I nodded, giving him a thumbs up behind his mother's back. We may just get out of this alive after all.

"Oh...are you okay, darling? Do you need mommy to do anything?" Diego and I had to leave the room at this point, because we literally could not keep it together after such babying on Sal. While she doted on her son, we finished packing the cart with our mowers and weedwackers.

Sal and his mom eventually came out of the shack, and she walked him up to us. "Be good, and work hard, dear. Be careful with your eye. Look after him, you two," she said, turning to us.

Diego nodded and I said, "Yes, ma'am," before starting the cart, and she went back to her SUV, apparently satisfied with how things turned out. The three of us shared a quick glance and breathed a sigh of relief.

"You're getting bitch duty for that stunt, kid," I said, with less of a sense of smugness than I was expecting.

"James, I-"

"Jim," I corrected.

"Come on, Jim, I was just having some fun! The two of you'd do the same thing in my shoes!"

"Yeah, maybe, but that's not the point. We like this job, and this neighborhood, minus most of the people. We're already on thin ice, as most rich people don't like it when the hired help has as much-or more-money than they do. Stop fucking up, and maybe you can make something of yourself someday." I went on in this vein for quite some time, mostly because lecturing Sal as his boss gave me a form of retribution than nobody could contest, and I am also good at making something out of nothing.

Diego stayed silent. He was like a volcano, or a tea kettle, in that he could handle a lot of shit, but when the line was crossed, he exploded. I could tell that he was seething beneath the surface, and I hoped he'd be able to make it to the range before he spewed his metaphorical magma.

Either way, once I was done reading Sal the riot act, the three of us split up and went to work, pruning, reseeding, mowing. The first three hours seemed to crawl, but once we finished the first two houses of today's work, I tool the bags of grass clippings to the dumpster at the bottom of the hill, opposite Cliff's battle station at the front of the community.

I have no idea why that dumpster is in as peculiar of a spot as it is. It just seems awkward for whatever dump trucks come to collect the trash that gets put there. The whole thing is just strange to me, as there are no ads for whichever company owns it, making it literally the only dumpster I've ever seen with no sort of advertisements whatsoever.

Suddenly, I realized that I had just been staring at it, and that I still had half an hour until break, so I wiped the sweat from my brow and heaved the plastic bags up over the rim, and walked back to the cart. Before starting it up once again, a shiver ran down my spine, and I felt like I was being watched.

I tried as hard as I could to casually glance around, but saw nothing.

"Fuck, I need a smoke." Before tapping a cigarette out from its pack, I drank several large mouthfuls of water. It was unseasonably warm this year, not that I'm complaining, as our business picked up early, meaning more money. I lit my cigarette as I began thinking about this.

"Heh, I like that thought. Not that we need the money, though. Hm." What are we doing with the money, except paying Sal and going to shows?

Before getting too far down that line of thinking, though, Cliff burst through the door of his shack and came running up to me. He sat down in the passenger's seat, panting and sweating.

"Whoa, man," I said while he struggled to catch his breath. "What's got you so spooked?"

"Drive home," he began. Apparently I'd be getting this story two words at a time.

"Why? It's not lunch yet. Close, though. I'm excited. I have some leftover pizza from yesterday. I love cold pizza."

"Shut up, (gasp) child. Your (gasp) front lawn (gasp) is on (gasp) fire!"

05 May, 2013

On the Clock

Less than a minute later, we were in the Task Force Tank. It was kind of freeing to be able to say that a significant portion of our job, Diego and I, was driving a modified golf cart for the better part of a day. The family wasn't too happy, but I don't really give a damn what they have to say about-

"Jesus Christ!" Diego shouted. "Look out!"

I yanked the wheel, cutting the Tank back across the street, tires squealing. We rocked to one side before straightening back out, shooting down the street at a breakneck 20 miles an hour. I hoped none of our neighbors heard that. The last thing I need is for them to come out at 430 in the morning to discover that we've been drinking.

"Hah, sorry, dude."

"Just keep your eyes on the road. That harpy of a woman, Mrs. Fournier, doesn't need more of a reason to hate us." Diego stood up and looked around at the darkened houses for the sudden appearance of wakeful light in the windows. I chuckled to myself.

Appeased, he sat back down and took a gulp off the whiskey, and looked off, almost wistfully.

"How late do you think Sal'll be today?" I barked out a laugh.

"Hah! That's what's on your mind? You looked almost like you were having a thought for a second there."

"Well, if we ever decide to be honest to his folks...." He let the end of the sentence hang in the air.

"If we were ever honest with his parents, I think they'd string you and me up before he got into any trouble, so let's not go down that path, eh?" He seemed satisfied by my answer, so he just sat back in his seat, and took another drink, starting chatter about his usual early-morning topic: which, of two, celebrities would win in a fight.

Several minutes later, we pulled up to our maintenance shack beside the guard gate. There looked to be a man in the shack next to it, asleep at his post, and leaning back in his chair and feet up on the desk. I parked next to it, got out, and rapped on the glass window.

"Wakey, wakey, Cliffy-boy! Rise and shine! It's your favorite duo, reporting for duty!" He jumped awake, smiling as we stood outside, waiting for him to come outside.

"Ahh, children. Good to see you. How late will the boy be today, hmm?" The three of us lit cigarettes as we thought about it. Cliff, or Clifford to those whom he doesn't care for, was probably the only person, next to Tilly, who didn't look at us like he just stepped in shit. He was a middle-aged black man, graying at the temples, and treated Diego and I as his children, having none of his own, despite having sometimes overwhelmingly powerful paternal instincts.

"Why are you in a towel, son? Is life really so short as to not allow you the opportunity to put on pants?" Diego and I just laughed.

"Hey, heads up, guys. Someone's coming. I wonder if Sal finally got his license." I pointed at the headlights approaching.

"Damn. Not even half done my smoke," grumbled Cliff as the SUV lights stopped before the gate. It was Sal's mom's car. I really hoped he got his license, as I didn't want to have to deal with her right now.

Cliff opened the gate, and Sal, driven by his mom, unfortunately, pulled into a parking spot next to our golf cart. As she got out, unusual by itself, and walked around the SUV, I could tell by the look on her face that she and I realized the same thing at the same time: I still wasn't wearing pants. Swearing under my breath, I took a step forward and greeted her, pretending I didn't notice.

"Good morning, ma'am. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?" Sal rolled his eyes as he got out. Ahh, teenagers. How I don't miss being one.

"What sort of operation is this? Just what, aside from yourself, are you exposing my son to?" Uh-oh. This was going to turn ugly. I just knew it.

"To the best of my knowledge," I began, "Diego and I run the best lawn-care company this neighborhood has seen in at least a decade. Drive through once the sun is up, you'll see that we're second to none."

"Be that as it may, Mr. Dillinger, I think you should go put some pants on before we continue." Sal was enjoying watching me get scolded by his mom, trying not to laugh, while Diego stood at my side, trying to look sympathetic, and Cliff pretended he wasn't watching.

"Ma'am, our house is on the other end of the community, and we have a lot of ground to cover, if you'll excuse the pun. No one is awake, and the three of us are wholly dedicated to our work. Our craft, even. Blood, sweat, and tears go into creating such beauty." I took a step past Sal's mom and swept my arm over the sleeping houses before spinning back to face her.

"Also, I spilled my coffee on my pants less than a minute before you drove up." She turned to look at Diego, who pretty much looked like he just got out of a pool with that towel, for agreement.

"Is this true?" She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Uh, yes, ma'am," he responded, leaving it at that.

"Excuse me, miss?" came Cliff's voice from the doorway to the shack, joining us for the first time since she arrived. "I can prove it to you." With that, he produced a damp pair of pants from behind him, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Oh. Good." She felt the pants for herself. "Anyway, I was wondering when my Sal would be getting that raise you and I...discussed." She took a step towards me, and I took a step back, only slightly intimidated.

"As soon as I get approval from both the community and the state. Having a juvenile parolee on staff is concerning to the residents, and I have to be pliable, trying to get the best for everyone involved. Sal becomes a model employee, the company indispensable for helping troubled youth, and the community for giving a second chance to those whom society deems irreversibly contaminated." I flashed her my best grin, and she seemed to like that response.

"Well, then. Just see to it that you're not doing anything suspicious." She came up close to me and whispered. "And keep up the good work. The hard work and structure seems to be doing him some good."

By means of ending the conversation, she shook my hand, and just before turning around to shake Diego's, Sal yanked off his towel, and jumped back next to Cliff. She turned just in time to see the towel drop, and fainted.

Diego punched Sal, who was laughing his ass off, in the face, Cliff began scolding the both of them. After catching Sal's mother, I just buried my face in my palm, sighing. Some guys just can't ever catch a break.

02 May, 2013

Lawn Gods: Neighborhood Beautification Task Force

Explosions lit up the night sky above us as my troop and I ran through the cornfields of Kansas, desperate to be at home, riding our significant others instead of the War Machine that we had become. We were living a nightmare. The enemy within our walls as we sat, paralyzed with fear at the swiftness with which they struck.

I couldn't think about that now, though. It was taking every ounce of fortitude I had to keep from eating my own gun. I've never been a fighter, but getting drafted into a war you don't believe in tends to change that about a person. At least I'm getting to see the world, despite being returned home indefinitely.

A slap on the back woke me from my reverie.

"Wake the fuck up, man!" said Diego, my friend from before the invasion. He started walking back the way we came. "You just overran the target! Let's get back to the group, eh? I don't wanna be out here without backup."

He turned back towards me to flash his trademark grin, and at the apex of the grin, an explosion sounded behind me, and he dropped to the ground, dead. Wide-eyed, I turned around to see the killer of my friend. Instead, I turned to look right into the barrel of a gun pointed not just at me, but my right eye.

"Holy-" The hammer cocked back.

"-shit." The round exploded out of the chamber. I was dead! I was shot in the face! What the fuck! I can't even get an open-casket?

...

I bolted upright in bed. It was dark. I swore. Looking over at the clock, I realized I had only been asleep for two hours. I swore again.

"I'm never going to sleep for longer than five hours at a time. Ah well, time for a smoke, I suppose." I rolled out of bed, put on a pair of boxers, and went downstairs. On my way through the kitchen, I took a swig of whiskey and continued on through the double French whatever doors onto the deck that Diego and I had built two summers ago. It wasn't the best quality, but it was something we had built with our own two hands. Four? Whatever. I grabbed my cigarettes and Zippo off the grill and lit up, looking out at our perfectly-trimmed yard.

For two slackers (some have even called us degenerates), Diego and I sure did know how to tidy up a place. From the outside, our shitty house looked amazing. Just...don't go inside if you want to keep the image of a clean, well-balanced neighborhood. I have always suspected the rest of the street to be the same, but as soon as our neighbors see us, they want nothing to do with us. Just because we wear ripped-up jeans and thick, black boots with four-inch soles and covered in steel plating in the summer, they think we're scary-looking.


That wasn't always the case. Diego and I used to be all cardigans, clean-shavedness and loafers. Then he met Janet, who brought us to a concert. Her favorite band, The Hackenslashes. Separate it out in your mind. It was the kind of concert where someone in the pit was just as likely to leave with an STD as a broken nose or jaw. Something about the song lyrics just resonated with the two of us. We moved to Emporia, renovated the house so that it looked better than the others on the block, and turned it pretty much into a flop house.

It was just the three of us currently, Diego, Janet and I, even though she was at work. What can I say? Not all of our polo-playing past was abandoned. We still felt a slight obligation to be upstanding citizens, which is why we took the job as the Neighborhood Beautification Council. As we slowly started playing less polo, it became the task force. We don't really look too terribly crazy, but I digress. Who gives a fuck about all that? The more interesting bits are about to happen.

...

Sitting on the railing of the deck, looking out into the backyard and onto the next street over was kind of a hobby of mine. Diego was passed out, Janet was at work, and Kiera wanted nothing to do with me once she found out I wasn't as pure of a punk as she was, and thought I was, so she ditched the three of us. Whatever. Who the fuck needs that?

Anyway, I moved from the railing to one of the deck chairs, smoking like a chimney and slowly getting shitfaced. Maybe then I'd be able to sleep. The door behind me opened.

"Shit!" I jumped. Maybe Diego wasn't passed out. I looked back and immediately wished I hadn't. Diego had come out of the house with just a wifebeater tank top on.

"Son of a bitch, go put some pants on or something!"

"Hey, I woke up, heard some noise out here, and figured I'd come out and scare whomever it was into going away." He lit up one of his menthol cigarettes. Disgusting. I took a drag off my own cigarette and blew the smoke in his face. "Seriously, dude. Go put some pants on. Janet's not here, and she's the only one who'd want to see that."

"Nah, man. I think I'm going to become a nudist. I like the way the summer air rustles my jimmies."

"You kidding me?"

"Nah," he practically sighed out his response, blowing smoke in my face and sat down in the deck chair next to me.

"Then here, at least cover up. Save it for the nudist colonies. The neighbors'll freak their shit if they see us out here like this." I threw a towel to him.

"Fine." Then he started laughing as he stood up and wrapped it around his waist. "I don't actually want to be a nudist, I just wanted to call you gay for looking at my unmentionables."

"Dickhead."

"Yeah. Gimme some of that whiskey, dude." I passed him the bottle and he laughed again, plopping back into his seat. "Hey, did you see the mail? We got a letter from the neighborhood committee saying that our run as the Beautification Council is coming to an end."

"What?" Those meetings were the only time I could see Tilly. Her husband wouldn't exactly take kindly to me popping over for a social call, even if they are getting a divorce. I couldn't lose that.

"Yeah, something about us not being a...uh...'proper family unit,' or something like that. I dunno. D'you think Tilly'll be upset to lose her boytoy?"

"Without a doubt. We've had a connection for almost three years now! But she's not going to lose me, as we're not going to lose our positions. Neighborhood bylaws indicate that we'll be fine. We pay the most, per month, and every year, we win the 'Best Lawn' competition. There's no way this lawn would be this amazing without my secret ingredient!" I felt a slight upwelling of indignation at Edward Marsailles poisoning my lawn last year, even though we still won.

Diego rolled his eyes at the mention of the competition. He'd been the one who has had to deal with me during the whole ferocity of crushing the Marsailleses across the street. I could tell he was preparing himself for all the drama, but I also knew he secretly loved it. He, Janet, and the husbands on the block would get together and shoot the shit and gossip.

In just three short months, we'd be at it again, grumpy, octogenarian Ed and I, vying for control of the 'Best Lawn' title. Diego sighed loud enough to bring me back to the present. He tossed me a sleeveless hooded sweater, my boots, and put his own boots on. I looked at the clock through the kitchen window. Four-thirty a.m.

"God damn it. I was just getting comfortable. I might have even made it back to sleep!" Diego rolled his eyes again and tossed me the keys to our golf cart. I loved driving this thing. It was a special golf cart, with a truck-like bed to it, as it was reserved for the house that took care of the neighborhood's lawns. It even had a logo on the truck bed, which I had promptly painted over, changing us from a Council to the Neighborhood Beautification Task Force, and now it was time to go to work.