Today I Found the Bag of a Homeless Man

A dirty green blanket
In a black garbage bag.
A pair of clean white socks,
Wrapped up in a greasy rag.

A hundred tiny catsup packets
Hidden in your pocket.

A bladeless ladies razor,
a broken plastic bottle
of salad dressing gone bad,
spilling into the bottom of your bag.

An aluminum tin of tuna.
(I gave this to a wild cat.)

and amongst the stains
A bit of bright red
And the idea: You are wounded,
Or perhaps even dead.

An implication in still life
A terrifying sight.

Bag, where’s your Man?
The pride and sorrow,
blood, treasure, hunger, fear
the back on which you’re donned?

Who gives these contents meaning
Now that your owner has gone?

Scrounged from the Wayback Machine from AKPCEP, circa 2005. I was 21.

Coyotes

crossing the street alongside five coyotes

a pack or middling clan

of half dog devils

chests bony

a chorus of panting

knowing open mouth smiles

cheap blankets of fur

and black spotted lips

hunched canine shoulders

swaying gypsy hips

they smell like wet desert

of both the hunt and the huddle

of frozen winter bushes

and howling monsoon summers

of our encroachment

and their struggle

as development snares

new square acres as its own

Now cat alley and dog street

will be coyote clan home

So I demurely defer

and let this nobility pass

but just one pilgrim

catches me in their glance

and across that midnight

black asphalt expanse

he speaks in laughing mute

tongue wagging silent salute

“Move mortal,

We beggar princes are on the move.”

I wrote this poem intially sometime in about 2003 or 2004. I was living with a friend on the outskirts of Phoenix, where the shore of the desert is crashed upon by the rising tide of condos and suburbia. At night, rattlesnakes and javelena and coyotes would invade the neighborhood. Walking back from some misdemeanor or another, I encounter a pack of coyotes in the neighborhood.

This poem sat in its primeviel form in a notebook from that time and wasn’t unearthed until about 2011 when I started read it at several open mics and events. I publish it here for the first time for two reasons- one, so that it has a permanent form somewhere. Two, because my handwriting from the time is so atrocious that the poem has changed frequently. This is the version I like the most.

Sergius and Bacchus

Every Valentine’s day I think about the saints Sergius and Bacchus. Their feast is actually October 7th but the general feeling of the day reminds me of their story, one that is unique in martyrology:

According to the Greek text The Passion of Sergius and Bachus, Sergius and Bacchus were Roman citizens and high-ranking officers of the Roman Army but their conversion to Christianity was found out when they attempted to avoid accompanying a Roman official into a pagan temple. They refused to make sacrifices to Jupiter and were publicly humiliated by being chained, dressed in women’s clothing and paraded around town. Bacchus was beaten to death, but the next day his spirit appeared to Sergius and encouraged him to remain strong so they could be together forever. Over the coming days, Sergius was brutally tortured and executed, and his death was marked by miraculous happenings.

Sergius and Bacchus’s relationship can be understood as having a romantic dimension, and the oldest text of their martyrology describes them as erastai, which can be translated as “lovers.” Some scholars believe that the two were even united in a rite known as adelphopoiesis (brother-making), a lost remnant some scholars believe indicates early Christianity’s more tolerant views of homosexuality.

Don’t forget them.

The Devil and The Artist

 

It was on a cool winter day

when the wind shifted blue and swift,

that I met a man who said he knew my name

shivering cold in a bus stop kiosk.

This man, in tattered suit and tie

pressed his hand to my shoulder,

and pleaded I show him the place that I live,

as he shook like the revelation.

In a moment of weakness, I took his hand

and led him to the small place I stayed at,

with it’s dingy curtains, my little home,

my little ray of sun in which to rest.

He moved, not rude, to the room

where stood there a half done woman

smooth bare flesh, icy limbs, stoney breast

the beginning of a hand at the end of a wrist.

He slinked like a spider to a couch and sat

and said nothing. I tried to tell what it was

that made me let him in, but instead

I went

to work

again

And talked of this great shining world inside me

threatening to burst from under my skin

if I should let it stand like water

If I did not let it free

and he talked

Of the silence inside him

his blackened inside from freezing snow

of his scraping hollow fingerbones

of the hunger of his slowly starving heart

and I cut the stone of her flesh and listened

as he told me of things no one could know

of the cutting fall and the urn of his belly

like a sieve filling up and leaking

shaking and spraying

all who stood near.

So we did not eat, and, when the sun went down

I gave in a place on the couch

where I knew he would not be

in the morning.

Weaver and Potter

Playing her loom like an organ

the weaver now wonders aloud

how different am I from any god that exists

but the tapestry never makes sound

Her candles, they always need lighting

no matter how frequently done

the warmth never stays as long as she needs

and the night always catches the sun

when her husband the potter is spinning

and the kiln is baking his clay

it never stands up and bows at his feet

but in exchange it cannot disobey

and when the two have their first child

every creature’s already be named

all of the wolves in the world have already been taught

that wild’s no better than tame

And the stumbling son of the mold they come from

will still wander the world with his curse

and the blood of his brother will still cry aloud

from the fallow fields of the old earth

and potter and weaver together will sigh

for they think they are masters of craft

but in the end they’re alone with their flesh and their bones

shackled by future and past

So god bless the weaver and potter

and potter bless weaver as well

and weaver bless potter and god and the warp

as the loom and the wheel work their spells.

On The Flight of Starlings

On The Flight of Starlings

A murmuration of starlings,

now eastward bound,

clip like little ships

through the frail and distant clouds.

From my window, they are silent,

A moody black shape

that forms and disintegrates

like ash on the winter wind.

Though their litany is mute to me,

I know that in their midst

reigns cacophany;

a thousand little voices or more

swept up in countless conversations:

“where are we going hey whats your name

are we still planning on going that way?”

And each one navigates not only the wind,

but their place in the crowd,

feathers attuned to subtle shifts in the breeze

caused by the passing

of each member of their flock.

They must feel the sky

like a bed of nails rolling beneath them,

a million pins indicating

which tiny twitch of the wing is needed

which little tip of the head will prevent

and aerial collision, a misnegotiation

that could bring the whole shape down.

They must share some biological radio,

some instinctive group soul,

whose frequency will always be

a mystery to me.

And from my distant perch

I can see no reason or purpose

to their erratic flight plan,

and they can see no purpose in mine.

In The Wake of Revolution

“All hail king sparrow” quake the eagles who must now cleave to their nests, a people dethroned by the new monarch of the Seed. Vassaled into subservience by the small beaked army, the raptors cling to their aeries in docile clouds and broken-spirited flocks. They whisper to their eaglets of the time the wicked sparrow came and with great numbers swarmed the rocky precipices that once enshrined the noble parapets of order and truth. Justice, they say, and the right of the high-borne predator were both overwhelmed in the mutterings of ten thousand soft sparrow warsongs.

Now the once mighty linger at the edge of the avian kingdom and wonder when the revolution’s tide will shift. When will the great horde take flight and depose the false deity of the small-winged and small beaked?

“Never,” cry the sparrows in terrible union in their parliaments secreted in the groves — never again the tyranny of the mighty over the will of the many.

“Each sparrow a flock unto themselves, a free bird, never to be caged by man or beast or swift-taloned harrier again.” This doctrine unwavering, this song forever lusty and spoken from fluted breast and golden beak unto eternity and beyond.

Below, the pigeons watched the shift in the winds with the mute disinterest they always possessed. It mattered not who claimed the mighty mountains or sacred groves, for the urbane pigeons knew that where men coalesced was where true power lay. There, fat and happy, the pigeons watched the teeming mass of the sparrow insurgency with a mix of disdain and disinterest.

“Let them take the ashen seeds and vertigo places of the world,” they cooed. “The bread is forever ours.”

Let this as a lesson stand to us all- better to be the dove that clings to the rock than the eagle or sparrow at war.

“Expatriate!” the murmur goes out to all our brothers in grey. “Take to the land of cats and cars and trash and boots and live as pauper kings free of the turmoil known to those who fly in the harsh softness of the unforgiving clouds. Stand with us on asphalt and concrete as secret gods and mad saints with scraps in our mouths and all the world of glass and steel as our nest!”

The Master Thief

The Master Thief

Based on a Russian Folk Story

Written by Kevin M. Flanagan

2013

CHARACTERS

VARVARA: The master thief. Has nice boots.

HERDSMAN: Once had an ox, but it was stolen. Rather simple.

TEAMSTER: Once had an ox as well, but it was stolen. Rather simple.

DROVER: Also once had an ox, but it was stolen. Rather simple.

OXEN 1, 2 and 3: 3 Oxen, stolen by robbers. They don’t speak “people.”

ROBBER: One of the three thieves.

HIGHWAYMAN: One of the three thieves.

BANDIT: One of the three thieves.

PROPS

LOOT SACKS: 3 sacks of “loot.”

APPLES: At least two.

WINE: A wineskin, bottle, or goblet should suffice.

3 CLUBS: For clubbing.

3 KNIVES: For knifing.

THE MASTER THIEF requires a few simple scene changes, from the VILLAGE to the CAMP to the VILLAGE again. How these occur, what the sets entail, and so forth, are open to interpretation.

SCENE 1

(IN DARKNESS ENTER VILLAGERS STAGE RIGHT, ENTER VARVARA STAGE LEFT. SPOTLIGHT on VARVARA)

VARVARA (addressing audience)

There once was a time when cleverness and guile were treasured so much that we told our children stories of those heroes possessed of both deviousness and cunning. I am one such story, for I am Varvara, the master thief. My story began long ago, but tonight is the night that it ends, here in this scenic little village of Kanash.

(LIGHTS UP on VILLAGERS. The VILLAGE of Kanash is not particularly scenic.)

HERDSMAN

Oh! Lament!

TEAMSTER

Oh! Sorrow!

DROVER

Oh! Devastation! Kanash is ruined!

HERDSMAN

Ruined!

TEAMSTER

Ruined!

VARVARA

I had come a long way, through endless storm and forest, having crossed wits with vodyanoy and leshy, rusalka and vila. Ruined little Kanash was a warm hearth in a cold blizzard. You might think I plan to rob these poor souls, but you’d be wrong.

DROVER

OH! Emaciation!

TEAMSTER

OH! Famine!

HERDSMAN

OH! Starvation! Kanash is destroyed!

DROVER

Destroyed!

TEAMSTER

Destroyed!

VARVARA

Hearing the subtle pleas of the people of Kanash, I came out from the woods to see what help I could offer. Also, it was very cold.

(VARVARA approaches the VILLAGERS)

VARVARA

Hail, good people of warm, inviting Kanash!

HERDSMAN

TREACHERY!

DROVER

CHICANERY!

TEAMSTER

THIEVERY! KANASH IS OBLITERATED!

HERDSMAN

OBLITERATED!

DROVER

OBLITERATED!

VARVARA

You seem uneasy, good friends. Is something the matter?

HERDSMAN

We are poor, we have no mayor, and our oxen have been stolen!

TEAMSTER

Stolen by thieves this very night!

DROVER

If we had seen then, we would have stopped them. With clubs.

HERDSMAN

Oh, yes.

TEAMSTER

Quite.

VARVARA

Indeed. Stolen, you say?

ALL VILLAGERS

STOLEN!

VARVARA

I see. You wouldn’t happen to be offering a reward for their safe return? (Next line as aside) Altruism lacks the kind of cunning good stories oft require.

HERDSMAN

I’ve naught but my ox to plow my fields, and a bushel of apples to my name.

TEAMSTER

I’ve naught but my ox to pull my cart, and a barrel of wine to my name.

DROVER

I’ve naught but my ox to grind my mill, and a warm hearth to my name.

VARVARA

All fair offers for a simple task. I shall recover your oxen, you graceful, quiet people of Kanash, before this night is through. (to audience) You might think such a paltry sum would tempt me to theft, but you’d be wrong. For I am Varvara, the master thief, and a bigger heist I’ve hatched.

DROVER

The camp of thieves is just to the north, where they plot their next pillage.

TEAMSTER

You’ll find them there planning murders and legerdemain, I’d wager.

HERDSMAN

Such dishonest folk, who know not the sweat of a day’s hard work.

VARVARA

Heathens and roustabouts, no doubt. Have no fear, sweet, honest, defenseless people of Kanash! For I am Varvara, the master…collector. I shall go.

(Lights down, VILLAGERS exit)

SCENE 2

(VARVARA in SPOTLIGHT CENTER STAGE.)

VARVARA

(to audience) You might think I planned to stumble clumsily through the moonlit forest to the camp of cutthroats and simply lead the oxen back by their collective noses, but you’d be wrong. For I, as I have mentioned, am Varvara, the master thief, and a plan I’ve already woven.

(Enter OXEN, THIEVES. OXEN are “tied” to a post STAGE LEFT. THIEVES are huddled by a CAMPFIRE STAGE RIGHT.)

VARVARA

Common thieves are an unsubtle rabble, and their camp was not hard to find.

(LIGHTS UP on THIEVES)

BANDIT

Murder.

HIGHWAYMAN

Theft.

ROBBER

Treason.

(THIEVES nod in agreement. LIGHTS UP on OXEN)

VARVARA

Just out of earshot from the sinister yet agreeable camp of thieves, the oxen were tied, mooing and simple.

Ox 1

Does this yoke make my butt look big?

Ox 2

Do you ever think about, I dunno, like, life, man?

Ox 3

Ugh, oral story traditions are so over.

VARVARA

You see, long ago in another story, I stole the gift of animal speech from Indrik, The King of All Animals. I have regretted it ever since.

Ox 3

I mean, seriously. Folklore is all the same, it’s never new.

Ox 2

Maybe there’s like, you know, a kind of collective unconscious of mankind, man.

Ox 1

Should I keep this nose piercing? Is it working for me?

VARVARA

So many regrets- such is the life of a master thief. I crept through the woods to where the oxen were kept.

(VARVARA creeps over to the OXEN, addresses them)

VARVARA

Psst! Cows.

ALL OXEN

WHOA.

VARVARA

I know, I speak ox- it’s unfathomable but in this case quite true. I am Varvara, the master…herder. I’ve come to take you back to your owners.

Ox 2

Dude, so uncool. Not happening, bro.

Ox 3

Okay, first: It’s “oxen,” as in plural ox. Additionally, I’m not going anywhere.

Ox 1

Ohmigod, I love your little boots. Also, no.

VARVARA

What do you mean, moo moo moo moo moo?

Ox 1

I’m NEVER going back there. All that guy ever feeds me in boring grain and grass. I’m a fabulous ox- I need something fabulous to eat.

Ox 2

All my owner ever gives me to drink is boring water. That’s animal cruelty- I want something new to drink.

Ox3

Dude, he makes me sleep outside in a barn. A barn, man. How am I supposed to get my cozy on in a barn?

BANDIT

I’m going to murder those oxen.

HIGHWAYMAN

Not to be disagreeable, but I think the word is slaughter.

ROBBER

Yes, let’s slaughter and eat them. Yey, teamwork!

(THIEVES all “high-five”)

Ox 3

I mean, these guys are like, totally chill. They just let us stand around, no work or nothing.

Ox 2

Clearly, these are progressive, forward thinking people who’ve cast off the shackles of “work.”

Ox 1

I kind of love it here- and have you seen their little hoods? Adorbs.

VARVARA

Look, I know you guys don’t speak people, but I’m almost certain those three guys intend to brutally kill you and then eat you. If you head back home, I can promise you a bushel of apples, a barrel of wine, and a nice warm fire to sleep by.

Ox 1

A bushel of apples? Oh, delish. I’m in.

Ox 2

A barrel of wine? Do you know the vintage?

Ox 3

A warm fire to sleep by? Oh, blaze it up, bro.

VARVARA

(cuts them free) Now go- I’ll deal with the thieves.

(The OXEN EXIT, talking amongst themselves)

BANDIT

You know what I’m not sick of at all? All these bags of stolen loot.

HIGHWAYMAN

I agree, my friend. I’m quite pleased with our many spoils.

ROBBER

Moral implications aside, the life of a murderous bandit is the life for me!

BANDIT

Truly, we are friends for life.

HIGHWAYMAN

Here, here!

ROBBER

Who says there is no honor among thieves?

VARVARA

You might think I intend to steal their sacks of gold and jewels, but you’d be wrong. For I am Varvara, master thief, and I intend to steal an even rarer treasure.

(VARVARA creeps towards the campfire, then calls out)

VARVARA

Hail, friends! Is there room for another at your campfire?

BANDIT

Well, that depends.

HIGHWAYMAN

On several factors, actually.

ROBBER

How do you feel about being brutally murdered and robbed?

VARVARA

I’m actually quite a fan of the whole “what’s-yours-is-mine” ethos. I myself am a miscreant and criminal.

BANDIT

You don’t say? You wouldn’t happen to be carrying a large amount of gold?

HIGHWAYMAN

This is, of course, a totally hypothetical question.

ROBBER

It doesn’t have to be a “large” amount, either. Any amount of gold is an acceptable quantity to prompt an answer of “yes.”

BANDIT and HIGHWAYMAN

True, True.

VARVARA

No, sadly, I currently carry no gold, in amounts great or small, on my person.

BANDIT

Drat, that’s really too bad.

HIGHWAYMAN

A shame, really, as we intend to kill you anyway.

ROBBER

It’s really nothing personal. I do hope you understand.

(THIEVES stand and draw knives)

VARVARA

Wait a moment! I have neglected to mention something important. You see, I am Varvara, the master thief. I’ve come with a wager.

BANDIT

That’s quite a title.

HIGHWAYMAN

Strange we’ve never heard of you.

ROBBER

Indeed, most strange, considering our familiarity with the whole thieving industry. What kind of wager?

VARVARA

I am such an expert thief, you see, that I’ve stolen the oxen you three kept just outside your camp.

BANDIT

I’m not only unimpressed, but somewhat miffed.

HIGHWAYMAN

Master thief, maybe. Master negotiator, definitely not.

ROBBER

You’re not really progressing this discussion towards a “not murdering you” compromise.

(THIEVES seize VARVARA in as friendly a manner as they are capable)

VARVARA

Now, let’s not be hasty! I wager that I’ve stolen something even greater tonight, without even being there personally to steal it.

(THIEVES pause)

BANDIT

That seems entirely unlikely.

HIGHWAYMAN

It would take a particularly talented thief to perform such an act of banditry.

ROBBER

I must say, my curiosity is piqued. Where is this great treasure?

VARVARA

If you only come with me, I can show it to you. I wager your sacks of gold it’s a fairer prize than what you have there.

BANDIT

I’m game.

HIGHWAYMAN

I don’t see the harm in it.

ROBBER

My greed overrides my better sense.

(THIEVES release VARVARA)

VARVARA

Then come with me!

(VARVARA EXITS. THIEVES delay)

BANDIT

We do intend to kill this “master thief” for the treasure, right?

HIGHWAYMAN

Oh, most certainly.

ROBBER

I assumed that was a given.

(THIEVES EXIT, LIGHTS DOWN)

SCENE 3

(OXEN and VILLAGERS ENTER, STAGE RIGHT, LIGHTS UP)

VARVARA

(from offstage) It’s right this way, my friends!

THIEVES

Slow down! Stop running so far ahead! (etc)

(ENTER VARVARA, a little breathless)

HERDSMAN

Varvara returns! You saved our oxen!

TEAMSTER

Joy of joys! We are not ruined!

DROVER

We owe you our lives!

Ox 1

These apples are a delight, I must say.

Ox 2

This wine! I detect a faint raspberry flavor.

Ox 3

Dude, so toasty right now.

VARVARA

Then I come to collect on that debt and offer you a prize. Those very thieves that stole your oxen come this way now!

HERDSMAN

No! Our precious oxen!

TEAMSTER

They’ll not take what’s ours again!

DROVER

Clubs! The clubs!

(The VILLAGERS brandish clubs. The OXEN preen. The THIEVES rush in)

BANDIT

What’s this? The village?

HIGHWAYMAN

We’ve already robbed this place blind!

ROBBER

I am starting to think we’ve won this wager.

(VILLAGERS howl and club the THIEVES to death. This should take some time. While the CLUBBING occurs, VARVARA speaks)

VARVARA

That’s where you are wrong, my friends. You’ve lost your wager, and not just because of the vicious clubbing you are currently undergoing. For, in fact, there is a great treasure here, one I stole with only the most miniscule of efforts.

(The CLUBBING ends. The THIEVES are dead. The VILLAGERS go through the THIEVES loot sacks)

HERDSMAN

So much gold! Our village is wealthy!

TEAMSTER

Varvara has saved us all!

DROVER

Varvara for mayor! Who votes yey?

HERDSMAN

Yey!

TEAMSTER

Yey!

DROVER

Yey!

Ox 1

Yey!

Ox 2

Yey!

Ox 3

Yey!

HERDSMAN

That’s three “Yeys” and three “moos.”

TEAMSTER

A unanimous decision!

DROVER

Varvara, will you take the now-wealthy town of Kanash as your home?

VARVARA

Of course.

(The VILLAGERS and OXEN cheer and parade about in joy. VARVARA steps forward to address the audience)

VARVARA

You may have thought I intended to rob the lot of them, but you would have been wrong. The treasure I stole was the hearts of these simple people, a treasure lost on more common thieves. It takes a cunning eye to find the truest prize, and to gain it with as little work as possible. Such a treasure was not lost to me, for I am Varvara, the master thief, and mayor of Kanash.

Baba Yaga

“BABA YAGA”

CAST:

NARRATOR

FATHER / SKULL

STEPMOTHER / BABA YAGA

CAT

GATES

HUT (X2 Multiple people?)

[In darkness, enter NATASHA, seated on floor. Lights Up.]

NARRATOR

Once upon a time there lived a girl named Natasha. She was the daughter of a widower, and though they were lonely, they were happy together, playing in the endless forest that surrounded their little hut. Such is the way of fairy tales: it always seems as though nothing will ever change and that everything is eternal, until something does, in fact, change. Natasha and her Father never wanted for anything, until one day, her father came to her with strange news. So such stories always go.

[Enter FATHER.]

FATHER:
Natasha, we need to talk, my dear.

NATASHA:
Yes father?

FATHER:
Well, it has been a long time since mother died, and we both miss her very much, but there are… some things…that only a mother can do. So, I have decided to remarry.

NATASHA:
You mean I’ll have a new mommy?

FATHER:
(Nervous Laugh) Yes, a new mommy. I met her in the forest while collecting firewood, and she comes here today to be my wife. I know it seems sudden, but it is not unusual in stories such as these.

Enter STEPMOTHER.

NATASHA:
Hello, Stepmother–

STEPMOTHER:
(interrupting) Little children are to be seen, not heard. Now, Natasha, my dearest…I need a needle and a thread to mend your father’s shirt. Go fetch me them.


FATHER:
Do as she says.

[Natasha exits backstage.]

STEPMOTHER

My dear, handsome, strong, brave husband- would life not be better if we were free of your little one? Then you and I could be alone, where I could sink my teeth into you.

FATHER

I love Natasha, my dear. Please don’t make me choose between the two of you.

STEPMOTHER

You think I mean to make you choose? How insulting- I need to be alone. Now, Go!

FATHER EXITS

STEPMOTHER

One might wonder what a man could see in a verbally abusive woman he found wandering in the woods one day, but this is the way such stories always go.

NATASHA ENTERS


NATASHA:
We have no needle and thread.

STEPMOTHER:

(interrupting) Seen, not heard, Natasha! (sizes up Natasha, pinches her cheek) Well then…Could you go to my sister Baba Yaga’s house and get it a needle and some thread for me?

NATASHA:
Baba Yaga? Baba Yaga, the witch who flies through the night in a mortar and pestle? Baba Yaga, who lives beyond a gate of skulls in a hut with chicken legs? Baba Yaga, who has iron teeth and eats children? Your sister is Baba Yaga?

STEPMOTHER:
Hold your tongue, you little savage. My sister is sweet, beautiful, and kind. I’ll hear no more ill talk of her. Take these little scraps of food and go!


[STEPMOTHER hands NATASHA a handkerchief with food in it. NATASHA takes it, and turns. STEPMOTHER exits. LIGHTS DIM.]

[NATASHA looks into the BINDLE]

NATASHA:

A lump of greasy bread, a hard acorn, and a salted fish? A trio of items, that, at first glance, will have no use to the protagonist in such a story.


[NATASHA moves to STAGE RIGHT. ENTER GATES, SKULL. HUT enters CENTER STAGE, BABA YAGA is obscured by HUT.]

NATASHA:
Hello, is this the gate of Baba Yaga?

GATES:
(Groans) These are the gates of Baba Yaga.

NATASHA:
I’m Natasha, I came to get a needle and thread for my stepmother.

GATES:

(Groans)

NATASHA:

Is something the matter?

GATES:

(Groans) I haven’t been oiled in so long, my joints are aching. I have been neglected by my master, and in need of the kindness only children know in stories such as these.

NATASHA:

You poor thing. I have this greasy bread, let me see what I can do.

[NATASHA rubs grease into the joints of the GATE]

GATES:

I shall remember your kindness, and perhaps you will be rewarded for your selflessness later on. Such it always is, in stories such as these.

[The GATES swing open, and the SKULL steps forward. His eyes are closed.]


SKULL:

Halt! Who goes there? (pause) No, seriously, who goes there? I can’t see a goddamn thing. No eyeballs, amiright?

NATASHA:

I-

SKULL:

Why Baba Yaga wants to hang a skull on her door and use it like some kind of doorman is beyond me, but hey, what do I know? I’m a blind, brainless, reanimated piece of a rotten human corpse, amiright?

NATASHA:

Well, I-

SKULL:

I mean, Witches, amiright? Can’t be happy with a simple door knocker, Nooooo, need to go and dig up a corpse, rip its skull out, boil it in some mystic bullshit and then hang it up as a grisly totem to ward off visitors. Who taught this bitch to decorate, Vlad the Impaler? Not that I’d be any better, not having eyes and all, Amiright?

NATASHA:

Well, I might be able to help with that- will this acorn make a serviceable eye?

[NATASHA stuff the acorn into SKULLS eye. SKULL opens one eye, looks around with it]

SKULL:

Hot DAMN! It’s good to see again. You’re all right, kid, and a little heartbreaker, too. I’ll remember this. You want in? Just tell the stupid chicken-hut to sit its mythological ass down and it’ll do it, but make sure it’s in the form of a rhyming couplet. Huts love that shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to stare out into the forest and count squirrels. Uh…as it always is in stories such as these, or something.

[SKULL moves over to GATE’s position and waits. When NATASHA approaches the HUT, it moves and trembles, and its legs dance around.]

NATASHA:

Hut Of Brown! Now Sit Down!


[The HUT stops moving, kneels, and BABA YAGA steps out, followed by CAT. BABA YAGA is slowly balling up an impossible tangle of yarn. CAT is doing CAT things.]

BABA-YAGA:
Well, well, a visitor. What can your sweet harmless auntie Baba Yaga do for you?

NATASHA:
Auntie, I just came for a needle and thread. My stepmother needs to mend my father’s shirt.

BABA-YAGA:
Why, of course my dear. Why don’t you take over undoing this knot of yarn for me and I’ll fetch it for you right away.

NATASHA:
Yes, Auntie. What a tangle- this could take forever. But, in stories such as these, children are always subordinate to adults, regardless of their obviously wicked intentions. So, I unwind.

[BABA-YAGA walks to the side of the stage, where she meets the SKULL, whose eye is open.]

SKULL:

Oh my god, you’re fucking hideous. (closes eye)

BABA-YAGA:
Loyal servant, I’m going to boil some water to cook this child in. If this girl tries to escape, I want you to bite her sweet little head off.

SKULL:
Wow, that’s graphic.

[BABA YAGA exits backstage]

SKULL:

Yo, I think that bitch it going to eat you. As it always is in stories, etcetera.

CAT:
I haven’t had a bite of food in weeks, yet Baba-Yaga is going to eat a whole little girl? Why do evil creatures always mistreat their subordinates in stories such as these? It seems like a bad way to maintain employer/employee relationships. Me-Ow.

NATASHA

You poor thing. I have a little salted fish, take it for yourself.

CAT

Me-ow. That’s the stuff.

BABA-YAGA (offstage)
You’re still undoing that yarn, aren’t you?

NATASHA

Yes ma’am!

CAT

You know what? I think Skull is right- Baba Yaga has a track record of eating everyone who comes in here. She even disguised herself as a beautiful woman and married some dumb woodsman, gloating about she was going to lure his kid away, eat her, and then eat her husband. Me-Ow.


BABA-YAGA:
Are you still undoing that yarn?

NATASHA:
Yes ma’am.

CAT

Look, honey, you should run. Just gimme that yarn before you do. Cat’s do love yarn-

NATASHA

In stories such as these?

CAT

Don’t be so precocious,

[NATASHA gives CAT the Yarn. CAT promptly starts playing with it and spreading it about, making joyful cat noises]

SKULL

We got your back, homegirl.

NATASHA

Thank you all so much!

NATASHA flees offstage, running through GATES, who let her pass with a sigh. NATASHA stands just beyond the GATES.

BABA YAGA

Still rolling up that yarn for your Auntie Baba Yaga?

CAT

Yes meow.

[Enter BABA-YAGA.]

BABA-YAGA:
YOU!

[The CAT throws the Yarn over Baba Yaga, gives her the finger, and flees off stage making cat noises]

BABA-YAGA (struggling with Yarn)
Traitorous vermin!
( stumbles towards the SKULL)

SKULL

The things I do for love. And free eyeballs. (bites BABA YAGA, who howls in rage)

BABA YAGA

I’m going to gnaw the flesh from your bones, you little brat, and then boil your father into a stew!

[BABA YAGA stumbles towards NATASHA and the GATES, who promptly swing shut and knock her back towards the HUT, which is standing.]

NATASHA
Hut of Brown! Now Sit Down!

[The HUT crushes BABA YAGA. NATASHA flees.]

NARRATOR

As you probably guessed, Natasha ran right home to her Father and explained that his wife had been Baba Yaga in disguise, as the cat had told her. When her Father heard this, he wept and embraced his daughter, and they lived together in peace, playing games in the woods and Natasha never grew older, nor was he Father lonely, and they never knew hunger or sorrow again, till the end of all time. No lesson was learned, no moral was taught, as it is and always should be, in stories such as these.

(LIGHTS OUT)

Breedertown

If Jake didn’t get his delivery across the Breedertown border before the restaurant opened, he wouldn’t get paid. Plus, the package would certainly begin to smell.

Jake pumped his legs with the fervor of a drowning man, grinding the gears of his rusted bike as it crested over the paved hill of Washington street. He allowed himself to coast effortlessly downhill, eying the newspaper wrapped package in his bike’s basket. His ancient, poorly maintained bicycle shuddered with every small imperfection on the surface of the street. He was less than a block away from the border. He came to the bottom of the hill and began the laborious task of climbing the last hill before the checkpoint.

He could feel his visa shifting in the pocket of his dingy gray shorts, and it gave him a little comfort to know that he was prepared for the demeaning procedure that was quickly approaching. Jake had never wanted to be a delivery boy, but it was one of the only jobs that allowed people like him to leave the enclave. He knew that failing to get his package to its destination on time would likely cost him more than just his job.

He reached the top of the last hill and allowed himself the briefest pause to enjoy the view. Past the crumbling tenements of Breedertown, he could see the vastness of the Pacific ocean. Rising up from the sea, a few miles offshore, were the ruins of Avondale, waiting to disappear beneath the waves when the tide came in again. The salty wind seemed wasted on the folks he was delivering too, and he felt the gnawing prejudice of his parents creep into his thoughts for a moment. Can they really appreciate such a wonderful smell?

He shook his head and girded himself for the final downhill to the crossing. His bike groaned and choked in defiance as he navigated it down the shattered street towards the rust-chewed border checkpoint. As he grew closer, he caught the noxious scent of the guards before he ever saw them. The sweet smell of rot.

As his bike slowed to a stop before the border station, one of the guards stepped out of the small booth and motioned him over. The guard was dressed in the standard uniform- brown button up shirt, brown trousers with black boots and a riot officer’s shield-like helmet. They never wore any sort of body armor, and Jake had always assumed it wouldn’t make much of a difference if they did. The helmets were more of a courtesy to bordercrossers like himself. The guard rested one leather gloved hand on his hip and the other hand on the grip of his holstered gun. His badge shone in the noonday sun and read “Officer Swift.”

Jake swung his body off his bike and walked it the last few yards to the checkpoint, the whole time the awful stench growing in intensity. He leaned his bike gingerly against the side of the small building and fished out his travel visa. Inside the booth, the other guard motioned him to the opening in the glass, and Jake slid his papers through the slot. He cast a wary glance at the guard standing outside, and noticed that flies were starting to gather around the package in his basket. He had to hurry. He spoke up.

“Hey, I don’t mean to be a pain, but you guys know me, right? I’m the delivery guy for Papa Ghede’s. Can we hurry this up a little?”

The guard behind the glass grunted, and something black oozed out from under his helmet and splattered on his brown shirt just an inch from the badge identifying him as “Officer Humes.” Jake crossed the border every couple of days, but wondered if the guards even recognized him. Do we all just look the same to you?

The flies were starting to buzz around the officer standing outside, who either failed to notice or failed to care. Jake was getting nervous, and found himself fidgeting and shuffling his feet. The guard behind the glass slid the visa back to Jake with another grunt.

“That doesn’t even look like you,” he managed to growl, spittle and something like old blood splattering against the backside of the tinted glass and dripping down to the counter. “It says you have green eyes, but they look gray to me. Do they look gray to you, Swift?”

The other guard grunted in disgust, and leaned into the booth.

“For God’s sake Humes, your eyes are starting to go. It’s clearly the kid. Let him pass so I don’t have to stand out here anymore, I’m getting the flies.”

Officer Humes grunted again, and a tooth fell on the counter. Jake stifled the urge to vomit.

“Fine. Your papers are in order. Get out of here.”

Jake permitted himself a small sigh of relief, then jumped on his bike and rode out of Breedertown and down the road towards New Phoenix. Waving the flies away from his precious cargo, he mused to himself about Officer Swift’s choice of words: “For God’s sake.”

As if those people believed in God.

He cruised the streets of New Phoenix with his head held high and his newspaper wrapped package carefully tied down. He had been making deliveries to Papa Ghede’s since he was old enough to ride a bike, and was used to the blank stares and occasion catcalls that would follow him as he passed the musty homes and businesses that lined the street. He’d had his fair share of trouble with the locals, but he had eventually become accustomed to his place as a necessary outsider here. He provided a particular service that, in a way, was all that was holding the country together.

Jake was born decades after the Calamity- the series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that laid waste to most of humanity and reconfigured much of the world’s geography. His great-grandparents had immigrated from podunk California during what they had often referred to as “The Real Big Ones” that eventually plunged the old West Coast into the ocean, and they had even survived the Pandemic that followed in its wake. He was the descendant of survivors, and his family had done everything it could to make a life for itself in the new country that was forming.

Before Jake’s grandfather’s passing, he would speak with a mix of awe and fear about the Decade of the Dead, the years following the outbreak of the disease known only as the Pandemic. His cataract blue eyes looked off into unfathomable distances when he remembered the infected rising from their hospital beds, blood cold and hearts unbeating, wandering aimlessly and driven by the need to consume human flesh.

“There were thousands of ’em, tens of thousands, and their numbers just kept growin’. We killed a lot of them at first, fer sure, but eventually they drove us out of the cities,” he’d told Jake one balmy summer night. “Only those that had the disease when they died got back up, see- the dead twernt rising from their graves or nothin. Some small comfort, I suppose.”

His grandfather told many such stories.

Jake rode faster and faster towards Papa Ghede’s, trying to shake away the memory of his beloved grandfather. There was no time or place for Jake to care about the world that came before him. He lived in the present, and had all the problems any regular 22 year old from Breedertown had to deal with. Getting a job, meeting girls- these were the things relevant to Jake. Grandfather never adequetly adapted to the new world, but Jake had no intention of being left behind.

The warm summer wind danced in from Buckeye Bay as Jake propelled himself through the desolate streets of New Phoenix. The ancient husks of ruined automobiles littered the torn streets and collected rust borne on salty ocean breezes. It was early in the day, but slowly growing warmer, so he doubted he’d see many Dead on the streets. He felt a twinge of pity for the guards stuck in the border booth, with the heat and the flies creeping over them. They were destined to decompose faster than the dead that worked indoors.

Jake let the soothing breeze calm him as it passed through his dark wavy hair, and breathed deep. He’d tried to never take for granted the fact he was warm blooded and breathing. Too many of the Living were content to simply be alive, but few seemed to take any joy in actually living.

The dead can’t appreciate the warmth of the sun, Jake thought to himself. He was almost content to stand on the street and let the warm sunlight caress his ruddy face, but snapped to attention when the buzzing of insects broke his revere. A halo of flies had gathered around the package in his basket- a reminder that he was on the job.

From the shadow of a door frame in an collapsed building, a low whistle went up, and Jake looked over hesitantly. A gravelly woman’s voice spoke.

“What do we have here- A little Breeder boy? What’s in the package, boy?”

From out of the door frame a tall woman in a torn red tracksuit stepped out, a nimbus of insects following her like a storm-cloud. She was Dead, her long mousy hair meticulously braided to stave off rot. He face was well preserved, not wet like the guards but more leathery and dry. Her mouth was drawn back to reveal her once pearly and chiclet-shaped teeth. What remained of her lips was stained with fresh lipstick. She watched Jake through her cloudy left eye; Her right eye was shriveled like a raisin. Jake turned away and took a deep breath of the sea air. She smelled like a mildewy towel.

“Just making deliveries, ma’am.”

She stepped out into the sunlight and immediately more insects collected, a swarm of gnats that she didn’t bother to wave away. Jake did his best to be respectful.

“I’m actually running a little late, ma’am. I best be on my way.”

She waved one bony hand in dismissal and motioned towards her porch.

“Now, now, your delivery can wait. Why don’t you come on inside and keep me company? I haven’t seen a Breeder boy in weeks. I can make you some lemonade.”

Jake knew he needed to respect his superiors, but he hated this game. It seemed like the Dead liked to push and push, just to watch him grovel.

“That’s a very nice offer, ma’am, but I really must be going. You have a good day. Stay fresh.”

Jake didn’t wait for her response, but quickly put his feet to the pedals and dashed off towards Ghede’s. The Dead woman watched him ride off down 5th street, clicked her teeth in disappointment, and returned to the shadow of her porch. The gnats followed her like little lovestruck ducklings.

Jake had spent many evenings in his family’s hovel in Breedertown listening to his grandfather tell stories about the way things used to be, when the living outnumbered the dead and you had to have a pulse to vote.

“Nowadays,” he’d repeat like a mantra, “anything that can crawl to a voting booth has a say in the way the country is run. It’s not right.”

Jake’s mother would reprimand his grandfather not to talk like that around him, but it never seemed to matter. One night, after a few glasses of homemade wine, Grandpa had become especially loquacious. He sat Jake down on their tiny porch and bore down on him with the full force of his indignity.

“Just adding insult to injury, they was. It wasn’t bad enough they started eating us, no, then they got uppity about it. A year or two after the first Pandemic the damn dead was talking, organizing. They were saying they were the victims- can you believe that?”

As a child, Jake believed a lot of things.

“Anyway, there was so many of them, and they had figured out that they needed the flesh, see? It was not having it that made them dumb and violent. Boy, that’s when all hell broke loose, dead people talking about Dead Rights and how we all had a responsibility to help them survive. Survive!” Jake’s grandfather had spit and roared at that.

“Ain’t one among them that survived nothing!”

That night, Jake’s mother cut Grandpa off early and sent both he and Jake to bed.

Jake’s parents were not much better. They knew what they had to do to make ends meet, but it they never seemed ready to accept that it was the way things had become. They had heard everyday of their lives about the time before, as he had for most of his. They behaved like they actually remembered it. They were born with a sense of Living entitlement that Jake struggled to understand as an adolescent. Growing up in Breedertown was hard enough, knowing that right outside the enclave’s limits were the Dead, some older than even Jake’s grandfather, and that it was really the Dead keeping the country together. It was the Dead working day and night without rest to keep farms operating and hospitals running- Jake himself had been delivered by a Dead doctor. As Jake saw it, the reality was that the Dead had as much a responsibility to the Living as the Living had to the Dead. Eventually, we all just had to get along.

It was almost 8 o’clock and Jake was speeding along as fast as he could, pushing his bike to its oxidized limits, when he finally made it to Papa Ghede’s. The restaurant didn’t open for almost an hour, and he banged on the steel back door and braced himself for the inevitable scorning. The door wasn’t even open all the way when the yelling started.

“Damn it Jake, you’re half an hour late! That’s the second time this week.”

The bellowing belonged to Papa, an old Dead man whose legs has turned black and fallen off years ago, confining his remains to a wheelchair that was rustier than Jake’s bike. Papa ate well, so he was preserved better than many Dead folk, but his hair had fallen out and he’d been overweight when he died. Those characteristics, combined with Papa’s bruised and ashy skin, reminded Jake of a slug. Papa’s stained, floral print shirt didn’t do much for Jake, either. A big, rotten, floral printed slug.

“Yeah, sorry sir, it won’t happen again. I got held up at the checkpoint.”

Papa affected a snort and rolled back into the kitchen. Jake grabbed the newspaper wrapped package and followed him, taking a deep breath of the air outside before entering.

Jake had a certain fondness for Papa Ghede’s – particularly the fact that it was very clean. Papa took pride in making sure his establishment, a little diner off Roosevelt, was spotless every morning and cleaned of all decomposed patron-parts at closing time. Papa Ghede’s diner was only open 18 hours a day, which was unusual in a city that never slept. As he lugged the twenty pound package up on the kitchen’s counter, Jake looked around furtively.

Papa noticed Jake’s searching glance, and groaned a little.

“If you’re looking for Helena, she’s in the walk-in.”

Jake laughed nervously, and Papa eyed him through clouded eyes. He wheeled himself into the dining room, shaking his misshapen head.

“No, no, I’m just admiring the décor,”Jake said to no one in particular.

Papa Ghede’s, despite being 1500 miles from New Orleans, had a definite Voodoo vibe. Papa had embraced the once derogatory term of “Zombie” and built his business around it- Images of top hat wearing skeletons and bottles of hot chili oil graced the shelves and walls, and streamers of purple and gold hung throughout the tiny diner. From a small boombox in the kitchen, the brassy sounds of zydeco music blared and filled the place with a nostalgic ambiance. Jake secretly wished there was a place in Breedertown that had a similar mood, but most of the establishments there were moody, poorly lit bars with little joy or life.

“Boy, just set the delivery down and get in here.”

Jake hated how the Dead always called him “boy,” but he knew there was no point making a fuss about it. The Dead were set in their ways. Jake followed Papa into the dining room, where he was punching buttons on the register in a huff. Behind Papa was a large poster of President Luison, who had not only been the first female President, but the first Dead one as well. She smiled that perfectly preserved smile down on Papa’s angry bald skull from beneath her perfectly coiffed blond wig.

“Twenty pounds at four bucks a pound-”

“6 dollars a pound, Papa. It’s fresh,” Jake interuppted.

Papa raised what was once an eyebrow at Jake, and smiled a broken tooth grin.

“Well, well, aren’t we fancy. I’ll set out the candles and good napkins for the guests tonight! I’ll make it the special,” Papa mocked.

Jake rolled his eyes, and Papa pulled a fistful of ten dollar bills out of the register and passed them to Jake.

“You want to stay for breakfast, Jake?”

The hackles on the back of Jake’s neck stood up and he shook his head gently.

“Don’t worry, boy, I think Helena could whip you up something vegetarian, if you are in the mood.”

As if in response, the sound of the walk in freezer closing sounded over the blasting zydeco music, and a moment later, Helena entered the dining room.

Jake felt the blood rush into his cheeks at the sight of her. Helena – pale and beautiful, with high cheekbones and long black hair like a waterfall of silk all the way down to the small of her back. Her skin was the color of milk, smooth and flawless, and her eyes were dark and clear. Jake’s heart beat hard in his chest. She saw him and smiled, her lips parting like they were actually alive.

“Hi, Jake.”

He smiled wide.

Jake had met Helena at a bar in Breedertown three months earlier. He’d bumped into her while trying to cross the border of the dancefloor, a drink in both his hands. He had smiled sheepishly and moved on, but after sitting at the table with his friend Benji, he found his gaze returning to her repeatedly. Her long slim arms moved with a serpentine grace as she danced with her friend and stranger alike. Jake had hardly noticed Benji’s swift elbow in his side.

“Stop staring and go talk to her,” Benji told him.

Jake threw himself towards the dance floor, fueled by desire and liquor and when she saw him she had gravitated to him without hesitation. They danced until Jake could barely stand, and when they fell into a booth together they ended up talking for hours while Benji entertained himself with a local girl. They talked about nothing in particular – the music, the people at the bar, and the weak drinks. It didn’t matter. Jake couldn’t tear himself from the beautiful, passionate energy of the pale girl named Helena.

It wasn’t until closing time when the lights came on and the power of drink had waned that Jake realized she was a Ghoul. His mind had reeled at that. Her laugh was infectious, and her smile was bone white in the blacklight blur of the Breedertown dive. When he’d asked for her number, she looked at him like he was insane but gave it to him anyway. He’d rushed home that night, his bike nearly collapsing under him, and thrown himself into bed. He spent the whole night thinking about her.

The next morning, he’d approached his Grandfather on the porch and asked what he knew about Ghouls.

“New-fangled Dead, that’s all. A bunch of self-important creeps, Jake. They think they’re better than us ’cause they’re Dead, and they think they’re better than the Dead ’cause they don’t have to eat flesh to keep from going to the worms.”

When he’d asked how they came about, Jake’s grandfather growled in disgust.

“The damn Pandemic never went away. The Dead carry it, some of us Living catch it, we die and go Dead.” Jake’s grandfather looked sad for a moment, then continued.

“Sometimes, little children or babies catch it, you know? And they don’t die – at least, not the way we Living do. They just stop living, but they don’t stop growing. It’s against the law for the Living to raise ’em, so the Dead come in when they hear about it and take ’em away to foster homes. The damn disease just keeps mutating, finding new ways to beat us. No surprise it turned into something new. One day, we’ll all be dead, Living and Dead alike.”

Jake’s grandfather had then started coughing, something deep and raw. He waved his hand in dismissal after catching his breath.

“Mark my words, Jake, you stay away from them. They’re a bad crowd.”

Jake nodded, but two hours later he had called Helena.

Since then, they’d seen each other a couple of times a week- mostly when Jake made the deliveries. She’d cross the border into Breedertown with a few of her ghoul friends to slum it with the Living, but inevitably Jake and her would find some private spot where they could talk. On one night in particular, he’d ran his hand through her hair and gasped at its softness.

“It never stopped growing,” she’d purred into the humid night air.

Shortly afterwords, Jake told Benji that he was seeing a Ghoul, and Benji had lashed out and punched him in the temple. Benji and Jake had not spoken since that night. Jake had decided then that it was better not to tell anyone.

A few days after that, Jake had been helping his father exhume bodies from the local dig when he decided to get some advice. “Dad,” he started, pulling his rebreather down so he could speak clearly, but his father simply motioned for him to continue digging. He pulled his mask back up and after they had cracked a few coffins and moved the bodies to the wagon, he tried again.

“Dad, when did you know you loved Mom?”

His Dad had said nothing for a while, looking out over the dozen holes they’d dug looking for something usable to sell. When he did speak, he looked Jake right in the eye.

“When her parents passed away, and we were working together at the butchers. She knew what she had to do.” Jake’s dad had then thrown his shovel in the back of the truck with the bodies.

Jake thought of all this while watching Helena wipe down the front counter. Papa eyed the two of them warily, then waved one fat hand at her.

“Get to prepping the meat, Helena, it’s not going to prep itself.” Papa laughed to himself, clearly pleased with his little attempt at humor.

Helena sighed, then glided back into the kitchen. Jake followed her without hesitation. The package Jake had brought was still on the counter, and a small cluster of flies danced merrily across its surface looking for some port of entrance. Helena swept them away with one motion of her bone-white hand and began to undo the string holding the mass together. Papa’s rusted wheels moaned and silverware clattered from the dining room, but Jake hardly noticed. He was watching Helena’s fingers gracefully undo the knot of string, her movements perfectly lifelike. She looked over at him and smiled again. He cleared his throat.

“I hope that business has been good?”

Helena responded with a neutral noise as the knot came undone. She peeled back the layers of the newspaper until the package had opened like a flower to reveal the mass of white bloodless flesh within. She didn’t react, but Jake had to turn away as the blood drained from his face. Helena separated the cuts of meat into stacks, and then looked up at Jake.

“It was fun seeing you the other night. I hope you didn’t mind my friends tagging along.”

Jake was looking out through the service window of the kitchen and spoke quietly.

“No, it was fun. I was surprised, I guess. Your friends don’t seem to get tired.”

Helena laughed a little as she set one cut of flank to the side.

“No, I guess they don’t. I never thought I’d hear you complain about something like that.” She picked at a bit of spotted skin on a thigh and then turned to Jake. “It’s okay if you don’t like them, you know. I know it’s sort of strange. I just want you to be happy.”

Jake didn’t turn to face her. From the Dining Room, Papa mumbled profanities and the red and yellow glow from a chain of lights flickered across the surface of the wall that Jake could see.

“Jake.” Helena’s voice was wary. He looked over at her right as she slapped a cut of brain down and a grimace spread across his face.

“What? What is it? It’s never bothered you before to see me work.”

He shook his head again and crossed his arms across his chest.

“Yeah, I just had a rough night last night, I guess. Sorry.”

Helena shifted her feet, black cowboy boots on rust colored tiles. “Papa will be pleased it’s so fresh, Jake, but isn’t it…” Helena searched for the words, looking between the liverspotted skin and Jake. “You know, old?”

Jake nodded.

“Yeah. It’s Grandfather.”

Helena made a sad sound and looked down at the slab of cerebellum.

“I’m sorry, Jake.”

The cut of brain oozed gently on the cutting board.

“It happens, right? People die. The Living, I mean. We die. It happens to all of us.”

Helena nodded slowly, then looked at Jake.

“Jake, do you think…” she hesitated, made a cross face, and waved away the rest of her sentence with one alabaster hand. “Nevermind.”

Jake looked right at her, searching her face for emotion, but her gaze was locked in rigor mortis neutrality. He ventured a guess.

“You mean about you and me?” he said softly. She hesitantly nodded. Jake searched for the words, but could not find them.

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Sadness seemed to well up in Helena at that, and she placed both her hands on the counter and hung her head, a river of black hair cascading down like a veil to cover her face from Jake’s point of view. He flashed a glance back out the service window, saw Papa was busy hanging a poster in the window declaring one of the specials of the day: “Brain Gumbo.”

Jake chose to risk it. He reached out and touched her, tenderly running his hand up and down her back in a way he had to assume was comforting to all beings. A quiet sob rose from her, but no tears flowed from her black tourmaline eyes. Jake’s heart melted, and he moved in close and turned her to face him, drawing her frail body to his and holding her close. Only his heartbeat interrupted the space between them, punctuated by the gentle shaking of her body sobbing in pantomime of life. She wrapped her arms around him and slowly grew still again. The silence clung to them furtively.

“What the hell is this?”

Jake and Helena broke away from one another with an unbecoming swiftness and spun in horror to see Papa Ghede, aghast and wide-eyed watching them. He rolled menacingly towards them at a snail’s pace.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” His voice grew louder and a foam of black spittle formed at the edges of his cracked blue lips. “In my restaurant?” Papa’s corpulence shook with rage in the confines of his wheelchair and he struggled to speak through his anger. Jake put his hands up and attempted to diffuse the situation.

“Papa, it’s not what you think. She was-” Jake began, but Papa waved one hand angrily and rolled forward .

“You goddamn Breeder kids, you think you can do whatever you want? I gave you a job, you breathing hunk of scum, and this is how you repay me?” Papa banged his fist on the arm of his chair. “With this?”

“Papa, he didn’t-” Helena tried to intercede, moving deftly between Jake and Papa’s wheelchair. The elder Dead’s rage refocused on her in an instant.

“And you! I take you in, raise you as my own- and this is the thanks I get?” His dead eyes bulged nearly entirely out of their sockets. “You…You god damn…Vita!” The slur left his lips effortlessly, and Helena flinched at its utterance.

Jake’s blood went cold – It was quickly becoming clear that Papa was going to report them, and then all hell would break loose. His mind was racing- My family’s business, Helena’s job! his heart froze, and he grabbed his shirt in a panic. There were even more dreadful consequences for the Living who consorted with the Dead, and Ghouls were no exception.

Helena was trying to reason with Papa as he wheeled backwards. His wheelchair banged into the refrigerator, and Helena’s pleading became more desperate.

“It’s okay, Papa, please don’t tell anyone, please!”

Jake’s heart was pounding so hard that the argument between the two Dead seemed muted and distant. His hands were shaking as he leaned against the counter for support. The cold bare flesh of his grandfather’s butchered flank filled his vision, and he closed his hands into fists. Something was in his closed right hand, and when he looked down at it something froze in his heart.

He was holding Helena’s meat cleaver. He looked over at Papa, who was pushing Helena away with one fat hand and grabbing at the phone on the wall with the other.

His body moved as though possessed. He crossed the short distance between the prep area and Helena in what felt like slow motion, gently pushing her aside with his free hand and raising the meat cleaver over his head. Everything seemed quiet and graceful. Papa turned his face to Jake just as the cleaver came down and severed the dead man’s phone-gripping hand. Papa looked surprised.

Time seemed to catch up to Jake and all semblance of grace or poise vanished as he kicked Papa square in the ribcage, throwing the wheelchair on its back and sending Papa sprawling across the kitchen floor. Black ichor poured from the place where his rotting hand had been, and Papa pulled himself up and raised his other hand just in time to catch the second swipe of the cleaver in the space between his index and middle finger. The blade caught just above the swell of Papa’s thumb, and Jake pulled it out and came down on him in a flurry of chopping and senseless screaming. When the blood ceased to thunder in his ears, Jake was surprised by his own wordless shouting, and Papa lay motionless on the floor, his skull a mess of terrible gashes and pooling gore. As the pounding in his head stopped, Jake became aware of Helena’s voice.

“Jake. Jake.”

He turned to face her, wiping a mass of decaying flesh from his cheek. Helena’s eyes were wide, and her mouth was set in an inscrutable line. Jake dropped the cleaver and it clattered loudly on the wet floor.

“Helena, I…He would have….We would have…” Jake stuttered and motioned meaninglessly, unable to chain the words into a full stream of thought. The grimness of the moment was beginning to descend on Jake like the swarm of flies that were giddily beginning to explore Papa’s inanimate corpse.

Wordlessly, Helena grabbed Jake by the sides of his face and kissed him. Her lips were cold, but for a moment it felt as though his own warmth was spreading to her. When she released him, he was speechless. She grabbed him by the hand.

“We have to get out of here, Jake, the breakfast crowd will be coming soon.”

He was flabbergasted, and motioned to the body of Papa on the floor and made an idiot noise. Helena turned Jake’s face to hers again.

“We don’t have time, Jake. We have to go. If the police find us like this, we’re both dead.”

Jake understood what she meant, but it was hard to ignore the still coldness of her hand clutching his. He nodded dumbly. From the dining room, there came a rapping of knuckles on glass.

Jake and Helena rushed as one to the service window and peered out. A small crowd of the Dead had formed outside, and several were amiably rapping on the glass and motioning to the sign Papa had hung earlier. Their voiced were muted and tinny from the other side of the glass, a chorus of questioning. Hello? Brain Gumbo Special? Anyone there? Hello? Brains? Helena quietly cursed and pulled Jake towards the steel door that lead to the alley behind the restaurant. The morning sun beamed down on them and began to dry the blood spattered all over Jake’s face. They looked around the alley for an escape route. Jake grunted something and grabbed his bike, wrenching the basket free and throwing it aside.

“Quick, jump on the handlebars, let’s go!”

Helena wasted no time, mounting the front of his bike and settling into the awkward position. Jake pumped his legs as hard as he could and they were off, careening away from the restaurant and the voices of the hungry Dead that waited for it to open. The salty air of the Pacific filled Jake’s lungs and a sea-breeze caught Helena’s hair up in its grasp, tossing it about like a ribbon of ebony hue. They were six blocks away when Jake finally spoke.

“I’m sorry I killed your foster dad.”

He was surprised to hear her laugh – that warm laugh that had made him fall so hard for her in the first place. She looked over one soft pale shoulder at him and smiled gently.

“It’s okay, Jake. He was already dead. But us? We’re alive.”