This Morning

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The first hug of the day comes courtesy of the subtle embrace of a spider’s gossamer threads strung up across the sidewalk like crêpe paper garlands at a birthday party.

While you continue to walk, a leaf flutters into your pocket while the distant sound of Main Street’s traffic rumbles it’s throat-clearing smokers cough.

You pass the houses of pedophiles and saints. Wrapped in the sanctuary of their imitation Victorian homes. Gingerbread siding. Slumbering children. Father’s with the stale smell of beer on their breath from the night before. Women reading a box of Bisquick for instructions. You nod a good morning to a woman with a body like a rubber­-banded Zucchini.

‘She has never been beautiful.’

The thought is through your mind before you can stop it. Before her crumbled, dentureless-­mouth can lose the smile your acknowledgement has given her.

‘What is beauty after all?’ You think with a subtle grin.

In some regards, maybe you lack the necessary components. Your snap judgements erase your good deeds. But, then again, maybe it’s too early to contemplate such weighty matters.

Maybe all you need is a warm cup of coffee. It’s warm reassurance in your hand as you read through text messages and browse your news feed. Perhaps there’s beauty in that too. In its simplicity.

Yes. French roast. Lawn chair on the back porch. It’s going to be a good day.

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Sophie’s Flash Fiction (Winfield)

To: Behnke760@Geezmail.com
Subject: Daily Flash Fiction

The Cemetery

Robert Norman turned.  Grinned at Logan Gasket, Mike Trike, Mr. Boots, and Samus.

“It’s been a long time,” Norman smiled at his nemesis.  “You remember Cordelia, I’m sure.  Don’t be rude.  Say hell-oh, hell!” he screamed, as Cordelia’s face transformed to the snapping muzzle of a bear.  She clawed at his face with her warm, beer-bottled colored fingers.  Despite her rage, and evident wish to claw Norman to ribbons, he dropped his arms.  Took a step back from Cordelia.

She remained frozen in place, swinging at at the painter, snapping her jaws, but without being able to move an inch.  Logan’s pewter-colored eyes were focused on her.  His brow, knit with concentration.

Norman nodded with understanding.  “I see your powers have mutated as well,” he chuckled.  “Glad I’m not the only one.”  He pointed to Cordelia.  “You’ll fix her, of course.”

“Why the hell would I help you?” Logan wondered, incredulously.  “You tried to kill me.”

Yes, I tried to kill you.  Ages ago.  And you just saved my life.  Had I wanted to, I could have collapsed her body into dust, but, regardless,” he paused.  “Light and Darkness. Darkness and Light.  You can’t have one without the other.  But, you will fix her.”

Logan’s eyes went cloudy.  His arms dropped.  “I will fix her.”  He removed a tool kit from his trousers.

Norman looked at Trike, Mr. Boots, and Samus.  “Stay where you are.”

Though Trike and Samus struggled against his words, they were stuck.  Norman said, “See…my powers have evolved as well.  Add hypnotic suggestion to Paint Chromatic Stress Disorder.”

“I’m sorry, Robert,” Cordelia’s head returned.  She smoothed out her dress.  Nodded her thanks to Logan and whispered, “You’re bothering this handsome, young man? Disgraceful.”

Logan returned to the group after his final adjustments to Cordelia’s circuitry.  Once free from Norman’s orders, he focused his gaze on an oak tree in the distance, and twitched his head out of frustration.  The oak snapped in two.  He then tore the roots from the ground, disinterring two ancient corpses in the process.

Amusement danced in Norman’s blue eyes.  “Shall I get to the point?”

“Please do,” Logan replied.  “Yesterday.”

“We’re going to have a dinner party.”

“Because the last one went so well?” Trike managed.  Samus guessed his Brainframe might be interfering with Norman’s hypnotic suggestions.

“If memory serves,” Norman pointed towards the grave directly behind him.  “Your father is dead.”

Robert!” Cordelia gasped.

“Asshole,” Trike agreed with the housekeeper’s sentiment.

Norman continued.  “There won’t be anyone there to trigger a warning about the shade of evil in my heart, is all I meant.  We both know what the other is.

“So, what?” Logan asked.  “You’ll come over and reminisce about old times?”

“No.  This time, I’ll kill you.  But, first,” he wagged the index finger of his left hand.  “First, you’ll bring back Margo.”

“My mother is dead.  You should know that better than anyone.”

“Yes, but you’re a–” Norman swallowed back bile.  “A genius.  You’ll figure something out.”  He slipped his hands in his pocket, and said: “Now, turn around and go.  All of you.”

The quartet turned.  Samus rushed to Mr. Boots’ side.  Being the oldest, eighty-four in January, he seemed to be the most affected by Norman’s hypnosis.  His face was pale.  His breathing, uneven.

“Are you okay, Papa?” Samus asked, touching his elbow with her metallic hand.  Gently leading him towards their car.  She placed her cold fingers against his feverish forehead.

“I’m fine. Fine!” Mr. Boots waved her off.  “Logan, are you okay?”

“Yes,” Logan replied, shortly.  His silver eyes were lost in thought.

“Your mom actually had feelings for that guy?” Trike asked in disbelief.

“What?  No.  What’re you talking about?  Who told you that?” Logan slipped into the back seat of their car without awaiting a reply.  He didn’t notice the look that passed between Trike and Samus.  The whispered, “That was close, yeah?”

Samus ducked her head towards the Driver’s side window.  “You’re sure you’re okay to drive, Papa?  Because, I have my permit.”

“I’m fine, Sam.  Just…Please, get in, okay?”

She nodded.  Got in the passenger seat.  As their car pulled away, Samus looked towards the center of the graveyard.  She watched Norman approach his black suburban.  A murder of crows flocked at his feet.  Did she see dactyl feathers…or fingers?  Grabbing at Norman’s pant legs.  Pulling at his arms.  Hands or birds?

Their vehicle rounded a corner, and the painter was obscured by a granite obelisk.

Danny Kruise and the Luna Moth

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It was an early day in August.  After days of sweltering heat, the sky was covered in bluish purple clouds, and the promise of an afternoon shower seemed as sure as the remaining two weeks of summer.

Three girls busied themselves with craft making when Danny Kruise, the destroyer of dreams and fierce protector of cheese, popped his head into the nursery and said:

“Hey, Liver and Onions.  I’ve got something to show you.”

Liver and Onions’ eyes widened.  “What is it?”  Her braided golden-brown hair reflected the weak light pouring in from the windows behind them.

Her older sister, Adélie  Penguin said, “Yeah!  What is it!”

Athos, the second Musketeer said, “Can we all come?”

“Sure,” Danny Kruise replied.

The girls followed Danny Kruise out of the south hallway Door.  The temporary home of a battered Luna Moth.  It clung to the red brick wall with fatigue.  One of its pale green gossamer wings, damaged.

“Oh, wow!” Adélie  Penguin enthused.  “It’s so pretty.  We should catch it!”

“No!” Athos replied.  “It looks hurt.  We should let it be.”

Liver and Onions, smiled.  “We can catch it for a little while, and let it go later.”

Adélie  penguin nodded.  “I used to have a Luna moth.  I know what they eat.  She scrunched her freckled nose and said, “But, what should we name it?”

“You can name it Lupin,” Danny Kruise said, half-heartedly.  Despite their enthusiasm, he was thinking of a melted cheese sandwich.  But, he kept the thoughts to himself, lest the girls ask to share his precious, precious cheese.

“What do they eat?” Athos wondered.

“Green Moon cheese,” Danny Kruise answered, betraying himself.  He’d mentioned cheese!  He quickly closed his mouth and started whistling, hoping they wouldn’t notice his oversight.

“That’s not what they eat,” Adélie  penguin smiled, slightly with a shake of her head.  “But, we need something to catch the moth with.  Can you help us?”

Danny Kruise agreed since the question wasn’t, “Can you help us make a melted cheese sandwich.”

He found a Clear Plastic Container of Death for the girls to rudely catch the helpless Luna Moth.

As Adélie  Penguin helped the battered moth into the jar, Athos whispered, “I really don’t think we should be doing this.”  Liver and Onions agreed. “It doesn’t feel right.”

Adélie  Penguin considered her sisters.  She nodded sagely, and tipped the moth back into her hand.  It’s white underbelly flashed, as it beat its pale green wings.

Despite their conjectures about its ability to fly, it disappeared into the sky, past the trees, and out of sight.

Sometimes kindness in children extended to letting bugs be free of Clear Plastic Containers of Death.  And, sometimes in adults, it extended to congratulating the girls for their act of kindness with melted cheese sandwiches.  But, above all else, Danny Kruise was the destroyer of dreams.  The cheese belonged to him, and him alone, just as the moth belonged in the sky, with the air fluttering past his feathery antennae.

And they all lived happily cheddar after.

The End.

Reunions (Winfield II)

Graveyard
Despite Sophie McGillicuddy’s insistence of being exhausted as a result of jet lag, she stayed up that night until 2 o’clock.  Talking. To Pull-Trex.

They’d been exchanging text messages and emails since last summer without Winfield’s knowledge.  They weren’t trying to be underhanded.  They withheld the information to spare their young friend’s feelings: it was a well-known secret he was absolutely smitten with Sophie.  Besides, what was there to tell?  She hadn’t even kissed Trex.  Held his hand.  They closest they’ve come to exchanging body fluids of any kind is when Sophie bought him a new pair of Oakley Sunglasses for Christmas (black, the undersides trimmed with neon blue).  They rested in a nearish sort of way to the watery film coating Trex’s brown eyes.  It might seem insane to count that, but when splitting hairs, one had to look closely to measure one’s success.

Their correspondence began innocuously enough.  Trex called her last summer (her parents vacationed in Zakynthos Island, Greece) to inform her she’d left a pair of turquoise tube socks and her copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“Are you kidding me?” she moaned.  “I had three chapters left ‘til the end.”

“How’d you manage to leave it behind?” Trex asked, his voice light. Tinged with amusement.

“I set it on my nightstand so I wouldn’t forget it.”

“Well,” Trex chuckled.  “You’ve failed, admirably.”

“Thanks, Trex.  You’re a real pal,” she sighed.  “I’m going to have to go to the bookstore tomorrow to find another copy.  Hopefully my parents will give me a ride.”  She threw herself on her bed.  Stared at the ceiling fan, oscillating on its lowest setting.  “Then again, I can always take the bus if they pitch a fit about taking me.”

Trex cleared his throat over the phone.  “What’re you doing now?”

“Why?” Sophie propped herself up on her left elbow.  Glanced out the window.  Rain lashed the window.

“I could read the last chapters for you. If you want,” he added hastily.  “Save you a bus trip to the bookstore.  Never know who you’ll meet on the bus,” he laughed.  “I once met a homeless man who told me about how he wrestled his rotisserie chicken from a bobcat.”

“You’d do that?”

“Wrestle a bobcat?  No, I–”

“That’s not what I meant,” she smiled, tentatively.  “You’d read the rest of the book to me?”

“Sure.  Get comfortable.”

She settled onto her bed.  Pages rustled over the phone.

“Chapter Thirty-Five,” Trex began.  “King’s Cross:

He lay facedown listening to the silence.  He was perfectly alone.  Nobody was watching.  Nobody was there.  He was not perfectly sure that he was there himself…

Sophie kept an ear towards the hallway while she lay in bed.  Her eyes surveyed the room Felix painstakingly maintained during her absence.  A waist high bookshelf propped beneath the window facing the front yard.  Titles like Edith Hamilton’s Mythologies, Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, assorted titles from Neil Gaiman (American Gods being her favorite).  Above the bookshelf, a framed quote by Ray Bradbury: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture: just get people to stop reading them.”  In the corner, near the window, a Japanese Peace Lily sat in a cerulean blue pot.  It’s three flowers, filled the room with a friendly airiness.  Above the plant, she’d hung origami swans her grandmother had given her when she was a girl.  Sophie had cut geometric shapes through the wings and applied colored tissue paper with glue.  When the sun streamed in, the wings would flare with color.

She wore a faded maroon t-shirt, ringed with gold around the collar and sleeves.  It read “Weasley is our King” in yellow, silkscreened letters  A green blanket was tucked up to her waist.  In the soft buttery glow of an imitation Tiffany bedside lamp, she heard cautious footsteps moving through the hallway.  An errant floorboard, creaking.  The muffled whisper of Pull-Trex’s ‘Damn!”  Above all, Sophie heard Felix’s sonorous snoring from across the landing.  Even with his door shut, the sound could wake the dead.

Trex’s bedroom was catty corner  to Felix’s, facing the south.  His stealth was largely unneeded given the sonic-cover provided by Felix’s nocturnal trumpeting, but it added a layer of excitement.  Made her feel decidedly tingly.

“Hiya!” Trex whispered, as he slipped into her bedroom and closed the door behind him.

“Hey,” she smiled, waving with the metallic fingers of her chrome-plated right hand.

“Pretty nifty, huh?” he offered. He took a seat at the corner of her bed.  “Felix didn’t seem too impressed with it, did he?”

“I think it’s a matter of perception,” she admitted.  “He doesn’t want Winfield to think he’s doing me any favors.  Like you said, he doesn’t have to create an invention for every perceived deficit.  Because, I’ve done just fine without the aide of a second, fully developed arm.”  She felt the invention with the delicate fingers of her left hand.  Sophie’s clear coat of nail polish flashed small ellipses as it caught the soft light.  “Still,” she paused.  “I love it.”

“Is it comfortable?”

“Not really.  Well, it was at first,” she corrected herself.  “But, now it’s starting to irritate my skin a bit.”

“Take it off,” Trex shrugged.

“But–”

“Soph–” Trex accurately judged her hesitation.  “You know I don’t care about that kind of stuff.”  He removed his sunglasses.  “I mean, look at me.”

“A pair of odd ducks,” Sophie replied, removing the sensor from the top of her shoulder.  The metallic coils retracted with a snick-snick-snick!

“Or dinosaurs,” Trex supplied.  “Technically, ducks fall under the evolutionary, avian umbrella so, I’ll allow it.  What’re you reading now?” Trex asked.  He extended his hand towards Sophie.  She passed him her book.

Cujo, huh?” he rifled through the pages, drawing facts imbedded in his Brainframe.  “Copyright 1981, Hardcover edition, published by Viking Penguin–”

“Winfield got it for me,” she admitted.

“Ah! Our intrepid wunderkind is evolving from the brightly colored panels and inked dialogue of the comics and graphic novels he loves so much?”

Sophie scrunched her freckled nose.  “I don’t think he knew what he was buying.  I like science fiction and fantasy.  This is–”

“A cautionary tale of a boy and his dog.”

She balled her fists and gently tapped her lap.  “I simply have to read it.  It was thoughtful.  He tried, at least.”

“That’s Winfield,” Trex agreed without cynicism.  “As thoughtful as the day is long.”

They sat in silence for a moment.  Felix snores punctuated the night air like a diuretic whoopie cushion.

Sophie shifted her weight.  Felt the pressure of Trex’s body against her legs like an electrical current.

“I sent him my stories,” she blurted.

Trex nodded.  Picked up his sunglasses from the bed.  Replaced them to his beaked nose.  “Yeah?”  His tone was guarded.  “Do you think that’s wise?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.  “But, it didn’t feel right keeping them from him anymore.”

He reached over and cradled Sophie’s foot.  Squeezed gently.  “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Trex stood.  Circled the bed.  Lay atop the covers beside Sophie.

“What’re you–” she stopped short as Trex made grabbing gestures towards Cujo.

She handed him the book with a smile.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“Haven’t started yet.”

Pull-Trex opened to the first page.

Once upon a time,” Trex said in a whisper.  “Not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine…”

***

At four o’clock in the morning, Trex woke with a start.  Cujo lay open on his chest.  Sophie’s head rest on his shoulder.  He quietly extricated himself from the bed without waking her.  Smoothed the blankets he’d fallen asleep on somewhere near Chapter Four, and crept out of Sophie’s room.

On the way back to his bedroom, the only sounds were Trex’s quiet, padding feet, the creaking floorboards, and the soft whisper of the central air, breathing through the house.  But, not a peep from Felix.

***
As sunlight turned the sky a pale shade of pink the following morning, Felix busied himself in the kitchen.  After the heavier food the night before, he reverted to Sophie’s preferred breakfast.  Sliced tomatoes with a dash of Penzy’s Sandwich Sprinkle.  An assortment of fresh fruit (Cantaloupe, Honeydew melon, green and purples grapes, and cubed apples).  Poached eggs.  The selection of food was more in keeping with his physician’s orders, and would keep Trex from spewing medical facts at him while he tried to enjoy his breakfast.

Trex.

Felix wished it was his imagination that placed the boy outside of granddaughter’s bedroom.  Felix’s weak bladder had ratted the boy out.  Boy.  Trex was hardly a boy anymore: Nineteen.

Before he jumped to unfair conclusions, he was determined to find a moment alone.  Discuss…precautions if they needed to be taken.  Above all, Felix wanted to avoid the “Not Under My Roof” spiel and keep the words “Nip this in the bud” from ever passing his lips.

Sophie would be eighteen within a month’s time.  It was her life, after all.  She didn’t need an aging octogenarian futzing around with it.

“Mor-mor-mor–” Winfield stumbled into the room, yawning.  “Morning,” he tried a second time.

“Morning, Winfield.  How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” Winfield mumbled.  He retrieved his Watchmen coffee cup from the dish rack beside the sink.  Filled it with black coffee.  Took a couple of tomato slices from the cutting board and plucked a handful of purple grapes from the bowl of fruit salad and settled into his spot at the kitchen table.  “How about you?” he countered, after taking his first sip of coffee.

“Can’t complain.”  Felix sat beside Winfield and opened the Metro section of the morning paper.

They sat in companionable silence while Winfield emptied his first cup of coffee.

“Did you pick the flowers yet?” he asked, filling his mug a second time.

“After breakfast.”

Stargazer lilies from the garden in the backyard.  Next to the sedums, jade, and Dixie Chicadees.  It served as a continued testament to Delores’ green thumb and Pull-Trex’s obsessive compulsive watering on a specific, regimented schedule.

***
“Felix,” Trex would warn him whenever he caught the old man near the verdant plants.  “Put down the hose, and step away from the garden.”

“I’m trying to help.”

“If you water them while the sun is at its zenith, you’ll scorch the roots.  It’s the middle of summer!”  Trex would counter, with his arm outstretched, as if he were trying to diffuse a hostage situation.  “Put. down. the. hose and go watch Labradoodle’s Day Court, Not Without My Left Leg, or whatever godawful daytime soap you pass the time with.
***

Pull-Trex walked into the kitchen dressed in a pair of dark trousers and a black button-up.  Felix could tell by the spring in his step that he’d been up for awhile.

Maybe since four a.m….

Pull-Trex,” Felix greeted the boy in an enigmatic tone.  Equal parts accusation and warning, perfected after years of being father to a precocious teenager.

Fee-lix,” Trex replied in an identical tone.  A smile, tucked into the corners of his mouth.

“How was your evening?”

“Good.  How was your evening?”

“Tip. Top.”

“Well, okay,  I’m glad that’s settled.”  He poured himself a glass of grapefruit juice from the fridge.  Sophie walked in as he tapped the fridge door closed with his sneaker.

So-phie,” Trex greeted her.  “Take note of my suspicious tone.  It’s how we’re welcoming each other on this anniversarial morning.”

“Duly noted,” she smiled.  Tousled Winfield’s exploded-clockwork curls. Leaned in to Felix for a hug.  She gently nudged a mauradering CompsognathSix aside from the fridge (Winfield’s dinosaurs mostly stayed in the basement, but occasionally made fridge raids during meals) and self-consciously asked Trex to move so she could get a plate from the cabinet.

Felix watched with inquisitorial eyes until Sophie was seated beside him at the table with a full plate.

“When are we leaving for the cemetery, Papa?”

***

The Metropolitan Municipal Cemetery gleamed in the morning sun.  Some of the quartz gravestones glittered.  Other sagged with age and crumbled with decay.  It put Winfield in mind of a mouth given selective dental work.  A bedazzling of the grill.

Beneath an aged oak tree, a groundskeeper tended a nearby plot.  He was hunched with age after spending years keeping his nose towards the ground.  Wrapped in a tattered cloak, he leaned against a cane that seemed the fan out towards the bottom.  A wide-brimmed hat shrouded the man’s face in shadows.

Winfield thrust a bouquet of lilies towards Sophie.  She was dressed in a black blouse and dark jeans.  Her shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair was clipped in an intricate system of braids and bobby-pins.

“Thanks, Win,” she smiled.  Sophie tucked the bouquet beneath her metallic arm.  Slid her left in Felix’s and made their way to the fenceline along the north side of the graveyard.  There, they found Delores McGillicuddy’s headstone.

Winfield and Trex waited dutifully as Felix and Sophie stood at her grave.

From the corner of his eye, Winfield thought he saw a pair of spiders as big as hands scale the weathered exterior of a vestibule mausoleum.  When he turned, Winfield realized they were they were the outstretched hands of an angel, carved in marble.

Winfield tugged the hem of Pull-Trex’s button-up.  “Did you–”

Trex knocked his hand away.  Shushed him, without taking his eyes from the back of Sophie’s head.

Winfield turned again and noticed the groundskeeper standing beside the granite structure.  The man leaned on his cane, and while his face was hidden, Winfield knew he was being watched.

***

Sophie watched Winfield thread through the gravestones towards the center of the city of the dead.  The plots Felix purchased after Winfield explained what happened to his parents all those years ago.

Felix called Sophie after Winfield confided the details of his story.  Her Papa’s voice sounded troubled.  Plagued with grief.

“I can’t imagine what that boy’s gone through, Sofa.  It’s unthinkable,” he said over the phone.  “The charade he put himself through….He needs to mourn their loss, properly.  Heck.  I need to mourn.  Claudia was like my daughter–”

He had to hang up after that.

She walked beside Pull-Trex.  Both were careful to bump into each other as they walked.  Their fingertips grazed repeatedly.

***

As they approached Mr. and Mrs. Pendergast’s graves, Trex saw a man and woman, standing with their backs to the approaching group.

Pull-Trex searched his Brainframe.  Matched the man’s height.  The silhouette.  When the man turned towards them, Trex bypassed negligible differences in the man’s appearance: The buzzed hair. The closely-cropped beard.  The loss of weight (fifteen pounds, by his calculations).

Norman Roberts.  He was alive.

“Winfield Pendergast,” Roberts beamed a luminescent smile, staring at the boy.  “It’s been a long time.”

Pull-Trex clenched his fists.  Shook his head.  Offered the only fact his Brainframe deemed relevant:  “Asshole.”

Norman Roberts and Cronos (Winfield II)

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Within the walls of Bruin’s Repose, there is a house that is steadfastly ignored by everyone in the community.  Even though the grass is overgrown, and the wrought iron gates are plastered with warnings from to city to ‘Mow or be Fined,’ nothing is ever done to correct the oversight.  Occasionally, the city will send a representative, the co-operative, a spokesman, but, all meet with the same end: a few polite words on the front steps, where the representative will nod politely, check an item on their clipboard.  They scrawl a quick note to their loved ones, and slit their throats just outside of the property.  The cement near the gates is brown with the blood that has seeped into the porous pavement, and cannot be hosed off.   So, they leave it alone.  Ignore the unmarked envelopes detailing how the occupant of the house will expose their darkest secrets should they ever feel inclined to snoop around the property.  The landscaped hedges in the shape of the man’s trademark, ‘Happy Little Trees.’  For all intents and purposes, Norman Roberts was dead.

The only time his neighbors saw him was when their channel-surfing brought them to the National Broadcasting Network.  While a new episode of Light and Darkness hadn’t aired in five years, the show did quite well in syndication.

Of course, his neighbors knew he wasn’t dead.  Lights burned in the house until all hours of the night.  He was alive.  And he was biding his time.

Unbeknownst to Sophie, her account of The Night was spot on, except for one troubling detail: Claudia Pendergast almost survived.  Roberts had her by the arm when the Hydra-Pretzel’s head was removed.  But, when he tried to pull her from the doughy morass, an unkneaded pocket of dough opened beneath her, and she slipped from his grip.

He blamed Winfield for ever creating that monster.  In fact, he blamed Winfield for everything now.  So filled with hate, Roberts couldn’t even thank the boy for reuniting him with Imogen, his former housekeeper.

Roberts salvaged the robotic head. Crafted a body using Van Dyke brown and a mixture of clay, replicating Imogen’s warm skin tone.  He’d even bought her a period cotton print dress from a vintage boutique downtown.

She was perfect.
Alive.
Well, she was far from perfect.

There were times when her head would randomly transform into a bear.  During these outbursts, Roberts would disassemble her body, leaving her immobile on the floor.  Her ferocious jaws, snapping uselessly.

But, outside of the debilitating, all-consuming rage, Norman Roberts was doing well.

Royalty checks from Light and Darkness kept him funded. Imogen was back.  He lost the fifteen ‘rage pounds’ he’d gained during his first failed attempt at ruthlessly murdering Winfield (pints of Ben & Jerry’s at three in the morning after particularly nasty dreams).  Also, since The Night, Roberts avoided carbohydrates at all costs.  Imogen humored the diet, though she didn’t agree.

“First bears, now bread?” she’d laugh.  “What’s next–” she’d snarl, and try to rip off Roberts’ face.

He’d also engineered another Prism henchmen.  But, only one.  He didn’t think his heart could take it if they were destroyed again.  His withered heart broke into six pieces with the discharge of The Happy Little Tree’s Plaster Blaster.

Like always, Roberts needed to find Winfield to ‘make him pay.’ For Claudia.  Blinded by love, Roberts conveniently forgot his orders to The Prism to kill anyone who got in his way.  Love was like that. It erased the glaring deficits in your character.  At least, Roberts thought that’s how the saying–

A noise from upstairs stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Imogen asked.  She sat on a stool next to one of Roberts’ blank easels.

“Stay here,” he replied.  Roberts grabbed tubes of paint from his work desk in case he needed to defend himself.  It could be another meddlesome neighbor.  If so, he would use his newly mutated power of hypnotic suggestion.  Quietly dispatch them like the others.  But, the chances of it being someone from the cooperative at two o’clock?  Unlikely.

He took the stairs two at a time.  His vinyl suit, creaking with every step.  Once upstairs, his eyes adjusted to the darkness.  The covered furniture.  The shadows on the living room floor seemed to ripple.  He turned on the lights, and gasped involuntarily.

An army of mottled gray hands waited, patiently.  Severed cleanly at the wrist, each were in varying stages of decomposition.  They looked like spiders, with thick black hair (or were they cables and wires) sprouting from their knuckles and the backs of their…hands.

Before Roberts could speak, or summon a paint weapon, the hands (there were at least one hundred of them) tapped on the floor in unison.  Roberts’ code-breaking background recognized the Morse Code instantly.

“.– . / .- .-. . / – …. . / …. . -.- .- – — -. -.- . .. .-. . …”
(We are the Hekatonkeires.)
    “.– . / -.-. — — . / .– .. – …. / .- / — . … … .- –. . / ..-. .-. — — / -.-. .-. — -. — … .-.-.-”
    (We come with a message from Cronos.)

“Who–” Roberts said, momentarily stunned.

“.- / ..-. .-. .. . -. -..”
(A friend.)

Ninety-nine of the hands snapped in unison.  Pointed to the hundredth, waiting patiently at Roberts’ feet.  The hand held an enveloped, sealed with red wax, emblazoned with the letter “C.”  Within the ‘C’ two clocks hands signaled the time.  The hour hand pointed to twelve, while the longer of the two, was three minutes to midnight.  Doomsday.

“— ..- .-. / — .- … – . .-. / -.. — . … / -. — – / .-.. .. -.- . / – — / .– .- .. – .-.-.-”
(Our master does not like to wait.)

The hands tapped.

“.-. . .- -.. –..– / .- -. -.. / -.-. — — .–. — … . / .- / .-. . .–. .-.. -.– .-.-.- / .– . / .– .. .-.. .-.. / -. — – / .-.. . .- …- . / ..- -. – .. .-.. / .– . / .-. . -.-. . .. …- . / -.– — ..- .-. / .-. . … .–. — -. … . .-.-.-”
(Read, and compose a reply.  We will not leave until we receive your response.)

Roberts grunted his agreement.  He opened the letter from ‘Cronos’ and read:

Dear Norman Roberts,

I hope this letter find you in good health, and diabolical, per usual.

I’m sure you have questions.  The answers will come in due time.

I’m writing about a mutual acquaintance of ours. Your Happy Little Tree: Winfield Marconi Pendergast.  I know his location has beguiled you now for half a decade, as his continued longevity speaks of your singular failure to act.

But, take heart: I know where you can find him.  He, along with Felix (his guardian), Pull-Tree (his best friend), and Sophie (his unrequited love interest) will be at the Metropolitan Municipal Cemetery this Thursday at five o’clock.  It is the anniversary of your epic (and failed) showdown.

They’ll be laying flowers on the graves of Paul and Claudia Pendergast. Empty Boxes.  Useless Plot Devices.  The ritual is important to Mr. McGillicuddy (Felix).  The three adolescents humor him.  Plus, his wife is buried there as well.  This ‘Sophie’ was close to her.  Viewed the woman as a mother, or the very least, a best friend.  With her own parents abandoning her every summer to travel internationally, the bond isn’t surprising.

If you agree to follow-up on my lead, doodle a response and attach it to any hand you choose.  I trust you haven’t forgotten how to doodle, Mr. Roberts.

Yours,
C

Roberts paused.  Read the scratchy handwriting a second time.  He moved to the kitchen table.  Pulled out a pen and wrote on the back of the letter:

I’m in.

Your tentative friend,
Norman Roberts

Who are you?

He speared his note on one of the sharp, black hairs of a reanimated hand.  He watched them move, en masse through the pried, balcony door, and disappeared into the night.

“Well,” he smiled, pouring himself a finger of bourbon.  “That was an interest plot development.  Chin-chin,” he raised his glass and downed their good fortunes in a hasty swallow.

“Imogen!” he yelled, running down the basement stairs.  “You’re never going to believe this!”

The Night Robert Norman Fell (Winfield II)

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Winfield woke the next morning to a text message from Sophie on his cell phone.

I emailed you some of the stories.  They might be difficult for you to read since they’re about you.  If so, I understand.  At any rate, tell me what you think.

P.S. This arm is so rad!  I love it! See you upstairs!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

Winfield smiled.  Stared at his phone.  Went over Sophie’s words until he had them memorized.

Winfield was careful not to disturb Wilhelm II from the foot of his bed as he slipped from beneath the covers.  In a pair of royal blue pajama bottoms and a sleeveless t-shirt, he went to his computer desk.  He turned it on.  Opened Sophie’s email.  Read another message:

I’m nervous for you to read these, Win.  This is your life, you know?  Just–promise you won’t hate me over anything you read, okay?  I talked with Pull about the sequence of events.  How everything played out.  What he remembers (which, is everything since part of him used to be a robot 🙂 ).

There were some things I took creative liberties with.  I hope you don’t mind.

Anyway, enjoy!

Love,
Sophie.

P.S. You’re the best.

There were ten to fifteen files attached to her email.  Winfield clicked on the one labeled “The Night Robert Norman Fell.”

Winfield’s pewter-colored eyes read:

Long after the police cars left the neighborhood restoring the quiet block back to its peaceful, default setting, the tar pit continued to buzzle.  It rippled.  It belched.

Hours before, it had been the scene of a terrible crime.  Logan Gasket watched in horror as his failed creation, the one he’d made at his mother’s request, the Hydra Pretzel, swallowed his arch nemesis, Robert Norman, and his mother, whole.

But now, something was happening.  The tar roiled and seethed.  The golden-brown leviathan burst from the molten surface.  Its roar filled the backyard with the scent of freshly baked bread and a miasma of spicy brown mustard.

From the shoreline, a glob of forgotten paint hovered in the air.  It sharpened itself into a blade.  A small scimitar.  Guided by unseen hands, it whistled through the air and sank itself into the beast’s gullet with the sound of a loaf of freshly-baked bread being cracked in two.

The Hydra-Pretzel screamed in rage.  The blade made a circuit around the monster’s neck, until it’s head fell cleanly from the body and disappeared beneath the bubbling surface of the tar.

The decapitated neck fell to the ground, creating a bridge from the tar to solid ground.  Robert Norman emerged in a daze.  The fallen painter stumbled from the beast, as he clung to the bear claw around his neck, hanging from a cord of leather.

He walked through the Hydra-Pretzel’s spicy-brown mustard blood.  He took no mind as two new heads were beginning to form.  Their color, a maggoty white.  Like uncooked dough.

Norman only had eyes for the robotic head of his old nanny, Cordelia.

Gasket designed it to destroy Norman.  But, first, to pacify.  To trick.  Before transforming into the thing Norman feared the most.  The animal that attacked him when he was stationed in Alaska for the Air Force: A Bear.

Norman picked up Cordelia’s head.  Tucked it beneath his arm.  Only then did he turn, sadly, towards the Hydra-Pretzel.  Crystalline, salt-encrusted teeth were emerging along the jaws of the beast’s heads.

The moonlight revealed tear tracks down the painter’s face.  Disappeared into his poofy beard.

“Margo,” he whispered the name of Gasket’s mother.  “I’m sorry.”

His gaze hardened as the monster gathered its twin heads and roared.  With that, it disappeared beneath the bubbling tar.

Norman thought about his Happy Little Tree.  He could forgive the boy for ruining his life, and cursing him with these powers.  This Paint Chromatic Stress Disorder.  Norman was as much to blame as the boy.  But now, the boy had taken away the woman he loved.

He would pay.  Oh yes, he would pay dearly for that.

Winfield exed out of the document.  His heartbeat drummed a tattoo against his chest.

Is this what actually happened?  Could Norman Roberts still be alive?

Sophie’s Arrival (Winfield II)

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The kitchen table was set with the usual accoutrements that heralded Sophie’s first visit at Felix’s house.  Tabasco sauce.  Ketchup. Boysenberry syrup.  Eggs a la Golden Rod. Bacon. Sourdough french toast.  Regular toast.  A halo of blue smoke hung in the air around the stove top.  A skillet with congealing oil and carbonized egg yolk was the culprit.

Trex removed his sunglasses.  Rubbed his eyes. Plucked a piece of bacon from a pile atop a grease-laden paper towel on a chipped green plate.  “Bacon is no longer bacon if it shatters on touch, Felix,” he quipped.  He placed the bacon in his mouth with a smile.

“Bacon is bacon,” Felix emerged from the smoke with plates of food in his hand.  His graying tufts of hair stood out on both sides of his head.

“Ah, tautologically sound, but as propositionally meaningless as this bacon ash in my mouth, good sir.”

“Trex,” Felix sighed good-naturedly.  “Lets leave Wittgenstein and his philosophical treatises on breakfast foods until my after-dinner cigar and brandy, okay?”

“You’re playing pretty fast and loose with the doctor’s orders,” Trex shook his head.  He grabbed a plate as Winfield and Sophie sat down on either side of Felix.  “Processed animal fat elevates the risk of cancer by three percent.  Alcohol consumption has been linked to six different kinds of cancer, and–”

Trex,” Winfield interrupted.  He poured syrup over his French toast.  “Can we please just eat?”

Felix clucked his tongue.  “Not until we say grace, we can’t”  He held out his large hands to Sophie and Winfield.  Winfield took the man’s right.  Sophie his left.

Felix raised an eyebrow in response to Sophie’s cold, metallic fingers in his hand.  He lifted her wrist.  Pushed his bifocals up the bridge of his Roman nose.  “Hmm,” he said with slight disapproval.  He looked at Winfield for a fraction of a second before closing his eyes and bowing his head.

Sophie copied Felix’s posture.  Safe from the inspection, Winfield and Trex stared at each other over the kitchen table.  Winfield rolled his eyes.  Trex shrugged.  Bowed his head.  Winfield stared at his food during the prayer.

Felix continued.  “Thank you for this food, oh Lord.  And for the company sitting around the table.  For family.  For friends.  For your blessing.  Amen.”

The group began to eat.

:So, Sophie,” Trex took a drink of water.  “Did you get any of your college applications sent off yet?”

“Not yet.  I’m still deciding,” Sophie blushed, unaccountably.  “Besides, I have an entire year to decide.”

“A few months,” Felix corrected.  He sprinkled powdered egg yolk over his gravy-laden toast.  “Have you thought about a major yet?”

Sophie mumbled a reply.

Felix tipped his good right ear towards his grand daughter.  “What was that?”

“Creative Writing,” she said in a louder voice.  “I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction this year with my English teacher.  Since the beginning of the semester.”  Sophie’s green eyes sparkled.  “She thinks I have the knack.  It began with two others,” she explained.  “Students.  But, both of them dropped out within the first month.  Now it’s just me and Mrs. Behnke.”

“Your teacher shares stories with you?”  The note of pride in Felix’s voice was unmistakeable.

“Sophie’s stuff is really good,” Trex interjected.  “Robotic dinosaurs. Zombie cyborgs. Paint Monsters.”

Sophie’s eyes widened.  Darted towards Winfield. He held his fork frozen near his mouth as he listened quietly.

“You’ve written about me?” he said with evident surprise.  “My life?”  His tone was enigmatic.

“I’ve changed all the names,” Sophie said, quickly.  “Locations.  No one would know it’s you.”

Silence fell around the table.  They made a show of eating while Winfield processed the information.

“That’s–” Winfield paused.  They waited, nervously for his reaction.

“Before you say anything,”Trex interrupted.  “I know you can only display your super-strength when you’re angry and near a kitchen table full of food, but really, Win.  Her stories–”

“Oh, shut up, Trex.  I was just going to say that it was amazing.”  Winfield’s pewter-colored eyes regarded Sophie.  “Can I–Do you think I could read any of them?”

“Of course!” Sophie’s shoulders relaxed.  Her rigid posture, loosened.

Felix looked at his grand daughter in quiet wonder.  “A real writer.  In our family.  I’m impressed.”

“You don’t think it’s stupid, Papa?”

“Absolutely not,” he replied firmly.  I’ve always thought you should chase your dreams, no matter how lowly or ambitious they seem to anyone else.  What do I always say, Win?”

“If you want to be a knight,” Winfield began.  The Sophie and Trex finished with him, “Act like a knight.”

“That’s right,” Felix nodded.  “When Winfield’s mother was just a bit older than you, Sophie, she was given a choice by her mother: School or Her Art.  Tuition or the opportunity to ‘Go it alone.’  Claudia would tell you she took the easy way out, but I believe it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.  It broke her just a little bit, not to speak poorly of your mother,” Felix paused.  Looked at Winfield apologetically.  He reached over and gently flicked the tip of Winfield’s nose.  “You know I loved her like one of my own,” he said in a voice cushioned by tender kindness.  “But, I think it’s telling that despite her abandonment of artistic creation, she picked a job that ensured the preservation of others’.  It’s like her entire professional career was a course correction by incremental degrees.  An apology.”

“What do you mean? Winfield asked.  Trex observed his friend, while Sophie’s eyes remained riveted on her grand father’s.

“She was able to learn the methods, the brush strokes of the masters.  If I had to venture a guess, had your mother survived, she would have picked up a paintbrush before too long.  You can’t forget your passions.  While you believe you’ve extinguished the blaze, it smolders on inside of you.”  Felix wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

“Believe it or not, Sophie, when your father was younger, he wanted to singer.”

“Whu–really?

“Indeed,” Felix nodded.  “He had a beautiful voice.  But, his mother–” he looked at a framed photo hanging from the wall.  “Well, her parents were immigrants.  They always had to scrimp and scrape.  Squeeze every last dollar from a withered potato. Worn shoes.  Patched trousers.  She wanted Michael to be financially secure.  And, she didn’t think he could do that artistically.  As a singer.  Don’t get me wrong,” he held up a hand.  “Your grandmother recognized his god-given talent, but she wanted him to have what she never did.”

“Which was?” Sophie asked.

“A career.  Places to move up.  A family.  She wanted him to be able to provide more than–”  He stopped suddenly.  Took a bite of toast.

“More than what, Papa?”

“More than the living wage of a security guard,” Felix concluded somewhat sadly.

“But you were doing what you loved, right?” Trex replied, diplomatically.  “Before they made you retire?”

“They didn’t make me retire,” Felix said.  He cleared his throat.  Let’s eat.  Before everything is cold and spoiled.”

The rest of the meal passed in tense silence.

After dinner, Felix soon fell asleep with a half-finger of brandy consumed, and an unlit cigar in a bluish-purple ashtray on the small table beside his favorite recliner.  The young trio passed a yawn like a secret.  It started with a partial yawn from Winfield.  One he was quick squelch with his fist, but it was already too late.  Trex picked it up, muttering, “Non-verbal evolutionary human reflex,” disdainfully, and Sophie finished it.

She stood from the sofa.  “I’m beat, guys.  Jet-lag and all that.”

“Of course,” Trex stood.  “It’s getting late.”

Sophie looked at Felix.  “Do you just–”

“He sleeps out here, now,” Winfield said.  He touched the back of the recliner, gently.  “Since Delores–” he faltered, as Sophie adjusted her weight.  Her eyes fell to the floor.  Winfield continued.  “He gets up at about midnight.  Pretends she’s leading him to bed.”  Winfield sighed.  Wrapped an arm around his waist in much the same way his mother used to when mulling over a problem.  “I’ve offered to tailor an Apparent Apparition for him.  It’s a sensory hologram you can see, hear and feel.  But, he dismissed it outright.”

“Oh,” Sophie replied.

“If you ask me,” Winfield said, “It’s downright–”

“Sweet,” Trex said firmly.  “It’s sweet.  You don’t have to create an invention for every perceived deficit, Win,” he said, with a cursory glance at Sophie’s metallic arm.

“Okay.”  Sophie leaned down and kissed Felix’s forehead.  She straightened.  “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

Winfield and Pull-Trex watched her creep up the stairs.  They followed her footsteps until they settled in her bedroom.  The one Felix maintained year-round, in case of visits.

“She’s shown you her stories?” Winfield asked.

Trex nodded without taking his eyes from the ceiling.  Winfield regarded his friend’s profile.  The beaked nose.  The bulging eyes behind the sunglasses.

“Why?” Winfield asked.

Trex turned his head slowly.  A ripple pulsed through his voice. “Why not?”

Winfield shrugged.  Retreated to the steps leading to his bedroom/laboratory in the basement.  “I guess I didn’t know you were that close.  That you talked when she was away during the year.”

“Yes,” Trex said.  He walked to the stairs leading to the second story.  The stairs Sophie just took to bed.  His arm rested on the bannister.  “The stories are really good.  It’s cool she’s going to let you read them.”

Both started ascending and descending their respective stair cases.  They traded ‘goodnights.’

As Winfield slipped into bed.  The house settled.  Made its noises.  The air conditioner kicked on.  Floorboards creaked.  Where the noises came from, he couldn’t be sure.

“As he drifted to sleep, an ethereal blue light crept across the room. A faint smell of parchment filled Winfield’s nose as a ghostly hand pushed away a curl from his forehead. It’s something Pull-Trex never understood about the Apparent Apparition. The play on words (A Parent Apparition). Or, if he understood, he was too polite to point it out. The ‘imagined deficit’ that predicated the hologram’s creation. A physical yearning for connectivity. A link to the past. An imitation of Claudia Pendergast’s voice echoed in Winfield’s room. “Good night, son. My little bird.” The image flickered.  Disappeared from sight.

“Good night, mom,” Winfield said. He turned and faced the fall, wishing it was more than just a computer simulation.