DP FICTION #67A: “The Last Great Rumpus” by Brian Winfrey

So I’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even some of the newbies have started looking at me funny.

I’m used to it, though.

I long ago got written off as one of the crazies, so far as the regulars are concerned. Every park has a couple—the folks who show up and stand around without a dog. You get your share of wary glances that way. Cold shoulders, too. Dogs that attempt to say “hi” get whistled back before you lay what must assuredly be a filthy, covetous hand on them.

Me, I’m tolerated because I scoop the poop. (If there’s one thing dog owners hate, it’s the clean-up). So long as I make the occasional circuit, I avoid drawing the ire of the dog park mafia (also known as that clutch of busybodies who fancy themselves the place’s executive steering committee). Every park’s got its own version of them, too.

“Which one’s yours?”

That from an obvious newbie, who’s sidled up. Some of the regulars try a wave-off, but she doesn’t notice.

“Oh, I’m just maintenance,” I assure her, with a waggle of my industrial-grade scoop.

Which isn’t actually true. I do have a dog in the park.

She can’t see him, though.

Neither can you.

Hank’s a shepherd mix. Maybe seventy, seventy-five pounds. Sleek, pale coat and gorgeous green eyes. A big softie with a fondness for belly rubs and sloppy kisses. I grew up knee-deep in dogs of all sorts, and he’s by far the most loving I’ve ever come across.

Judging by how he carries himself, he was probably five or six when he died.

Yeah, my dog’s a ghost. I adore him anyhow.

*

Hank and I, we’ve been joined at the hip just shy of four years. Almost from the moment I hit town.

We met in this very dog park, in fact. I was living in one of those shoebox apartments right there–shade your eyes a bit and you can make out my old window. The locale probably tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my prospects (dim), my bank account (low), and my general level of cool (nonexistent) in those days.

It was August. One of those weeks when the mercury hovers around 85, even long after the sun’s set. I was trying to master the art of sleeping without air conditioning, and I wasn’t doing so well.

Then came the howling. Low and wistful. Heartsick.

I was the only one who heard. The only one who could hear it, I think.

Back then, I had more than a passing acquaintance with heartsick and wistful, you see. Heck, I probably could’ve spun a dirge of my own without too much prompting.

In short, I spoke the language.

Anyhow, I went to the window, leaned out, and glimpsed a pale form wandering the park. And, as though he felt the weight of my gaze, Hank came to an abrupt stop and stared up at me.

Just like that, he was my dog.

*

The newbie points out her own precious angel, a terrier of some sort. He’s got some game (if not much grace), but he’s no Hank. Still, I nod and smile and tell her how wonderful he seems. That’s the delicate etiquette of dog moms: Your dog is the best dog ever…and so’s mine.

Meanwhile, Hank has started a rumpus.

Except for me, he goes unseen and untouched by the world. But animals can still sense him somehow. So, as he drifts among them, dogs tense and huff and growl. Finally, the boldest of them, a pug, lets out a high-pitched squeal of a war-cry and charges.

The others fall in, and it’s on.

Hank loves being chased—loves any excuse to run—so this works out fine.

The esteemed members of the dog park mafia just gape, no doubt wondering what the heck’s gotten into their mutts. Because to them, to the newbie, to everybody but me, those dogs are chasing air.

By the time Hank’s done a full lap, the hunting party’s probably doubled in size. Hank’s opened up a bit of a lead, but nothing insurmountable. He knows when to slow a step or two so the pack doesn’t lose interest. How to get them falling all over themselves to be first for a nip.

Second time around, he lets the pug close the distance. Inch by inch, until its snout dips into reach. Those stubby legs pump for all they’re worth. So close. Sooooo damn close. It does a little leap, like it’s about to bring down a gazelle… and Hank abruptly swerves and passes right through the chain link fence that encircles the park.

Like smoke. Without so much as a whisper.

The pug faceplants. The other dogs scrabble to avoid it, and that causes a pile-up of its own. The hunting party makes a brief, furious protest at this flagrant violation of the rules. But Hank just waits them out across the fence, tail wagging and tongue lolling.

What can I say? He’s always been kind of a rascal.

When he finally does slip back through the fence, though, a sliver of ice pierces my heart. Because it’s a real struggle. Locking down the smoke or mist or vapor—or whatever it is—into the familiar shape of my dog takes just about everything he’s got. A minute or so later, he remains fuzzy. Extra ghost-y.

It’s not supposed to be like that.

But it has been for a while.

“Poor baby,” murmurs the newbie, who’s still at my elbow.

I blink at her, until I realize she means the pug, who’s just taken another tumble.

*

I’m no mystic. My only brush with the unnatural has been my dog, and believe me, I’m fine with that. So whatever insights I have are my own, pieced together through trial and error.

Here’s where we’re at:

Hank’s shedding his essence. Each day, he’s a little less substantial. A little less there. And if he exerts himself, like that bit at the fence, then we’re talking Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change.

So the sun’s shining, the breeze is warm, and the sky’s so blue—so gorgeous—you’d swear some old master had taken a brush to it.

Oh, and my friend’s dying.

All over again.

*

Hank comes limping over—like an old dog; no, let’s be honest, like a very old dog—and curls up at my feet. Wisps of smoke (or vapor or mist) drift about him. Drift from him. In a second, they’ll fall away, carried off by whatever wind steals the dead.

If he doesn’t push his luck, he’ll recover some. I think he will, anyhow. He has so far. Not all the way, though; never fully. You don’t need to be a mystic to realize that. We’ve cleared the top of the bell curve, it seems, and it’s a slope from here on out.

The newbie’s chattering to me about something. I’m nodding along but not at all listening. Instead, I’m weighing things in my head. I had a plan when we left home this morning. A good one, I thought. One that made sense.

Only now I’m reconsidering.

“Don’t you think?” asks the newbie.

That’s the trouble, I nearly tell her. I think way too much.

Hank helps with that.

The thinking, I mean. The overthinking.

He’s got a bit of a nose for rumination. I start to fret, he goes and gets into trouble. The good kind. The kind that tends to have me flat-out laughing before I’m done untangling it. (Ask me about “Hank and the Great Granny Brunch—with the Squirrel in the Open Air Café” sometime.)

That’s what we’ve been doing since I realized what was happening.

Getting into trouble. The good kind.

We have a list, you see. Hank’s favorite places. My own. Plus, everywhere we hadn’t gotten around to. And we’ve been working our way through it, top to bottom.

We’ve raced the waves on a long, beautiful stretch of beach. We’ve hiked miles of canyons and mountains and gulches. We’ve gone deep into the forest and high into the hills. Out into the desert. Back through towns and cities and lonely stretches of highway.

Now we’re here. Where it all started.

Not because the list is done. Not because it’s anywhere near done. But time has grown short, and it just seems right to circle around to the beginning.

To let Hank run. To let him run as fast as he can, as long as he can.

We’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even the other dogs have started looking at me funny. Because, I think, they can scent what’s coming.

They can tell I’m about to turn tail.

If I whistle, Hank will follow.

Together we’ll limp out the gate and live to fight another day. Well, I’ll live. Hank will… Hank will keep going the way he has. For a bit longer. All I have to do is take him home and keep him out of trouble.

That’s my new plan. My better plan. See, I can talk a big game about running and going out in a blaze of glory and all that, but when it’s actually time to follow through…

I’m a coward.

I’m selfish.

I want my friend. Just a little longer.

Just one more day, just one more moment.

So I start to turn, start to whistle.

That’s when I hear the first of the shouts.

*

Like I said, Hank goes unseen and untouched by this world.

Just so long as he keeps his distance, mind you.

Ever had the feeling somebody’s tip-toed over your grave? That’s what Hank stirs when he passes through a warm body: Gooseflesh that won’t quit and a shiver that runs head to toe. I don’t let him do it to folks, as a rule. Even before it got to be difficult, it was rude and scary.

So of course he’s gone and done it now.

With the dog park mafia.

He cuts right through their midst, setting them jumping and shouting. Chairs get tipped, coffee goes flying. It’s pandemonium, it’s bedlam, it’s pure beautiful chaos.

And Hank loves every second.

He comes flying past and gives me a look.

No more fear. Now we run.

“Hold this,” I tell the newbie, and hand her my scoop.

No way can I keep pace with him. I don’t even try. It’s enough I’m in this, I figure. That I’ve cast aside caution and common sense.

I throw out a hand, and the thick smoke coming off him curls about my fingers. It’s cool and dry. Then it’s lost on the wind. I might be laughing. Hard to tell, since the baying of dogs drowns out all the other sounds. Of course Hank wasn’t going to let them sit idle, not during his last run.

His last run. Oh Christ, I let that thought loose, and it burns, stings, chokes me.

Only for a second, though. Once Hank realizes I’ve joined the rumpus, he drops back and circles me happily. Jumping, nipping at my heels, nudging me to go a bit faster, if you please. I lead him in leaps and spins with a nod here, a gesture there. Even when we’re not serving up acrobatics, my arms are in motion, my hands slicing the air. I can only imagine how this looks to the mafia, to the newbie, to the whole damn world.

I don’t care. Not a bit.

We round the park’s borders once, twice, nearly a third time.

Smoke’s thicker now. I can look at Hank and see dirt and patchy grass right through him. He’s slowing. White fur threaded with strands of oily, awful black. I want to cry out, but I haven’t the breath.

This is happening. This is happening now.

A rush of air. Like there’s a sudden vacuum, like it’s being filled in. No sound, though. No hiss, no roar. Maybe just a whimper—my own. The smoke sweeps across me, searing my eyes. When it’s gone, when there’s nothing but a few wisps, I can see once more.

There are dogs. Dogs of all shapes and sizes.

But no Hank.

I stumble then. An ugly fall, flailing, all hands and knees. Palms stinging and shirt stained. When I manage to lever myself partway up, I realize I’m weeping.

I’m sobbing too hard to make much sense out of anything. But I can hear people circling. Wary, faux-concerned, whispery voices. Call an ambulance. The police, maybe. Somebody ought to do something. The sooner they do, the sooner things can get back to normal. The sooner everybody can forget this.

A cry—red, wet, and raw—rumbles in my chest.

It’ll find its way to my lips in a moment.

Before it does, a hand touches my shoulder.

To my surprise, I don’t flinch, don’t snarl, don’t swat it aside. Instead, I blink as I squint up at the shadow that’s fallen across me. It’s the newbie. She’s still got my scoop.

She draws a breath. Her lips part. She’s going to say something comforting… and utterly stupid. I know it. Something about how everybody slips and falls, about how everything’s going to be just fine. I’ll scream then. I will. And it will be ugly and awful and —

“I saw him,” she says, and lets the scoop drop away before lifting me gently into her arms. “I saw him, and he was beautiful.”

And the wind stirs. And something brushes my cheek.

A hint of smoke.

A faint, fleeting kiss.

One last time.


© 2020 by Brian Winfrey

Brian Winfrey has written everything from ad copy to magazine articles to fortune cookie messages. When he’s away from his keyboard, he’s likely to be found somewhere along I-40, in search of yet another roadside attraction. Otherwise, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two dogs, a ferocious cat, and far too many books.


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GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 5: Clockworks, by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between July 2011-May 2012. Previous volumes were reviewed here, here, here, and here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. But trouble seems to follow them wherever they go, much of it tied to their family estate Key House which has magic hidden everywhere in it, much of it in the forms of magical keys, each with their own extraordinary abilities: the head key that allows you and others to manipulate your own memories and thoughts, the crown of shadows that lets you command the very shadows to do your bidding, the giant key that makes you into a towering colossusus. And new keys are turning up all the time. And with a mysterious enemy, a mysterious woman from the well, attacking them to get the keys at every turn, it’s an arms race to try to stay safe and stay alive. But as they have discovered, their enemy has been closer to them than they have suspected, disguised as a friend.

This story detours from the main timeline to tell us more about the lore that established Key House as it is today. Kinsey and Tyler find the clock key which allows them to step back in time and learn more about what happened there before. They learn about their family that has lived in the estate since the American Revolution, and the making of the keys and the Omega Door that their enemy so badly wants to open. We also find out a lot more about Rendell Locke (their dad) and his history there when he lived there in high school with his friends, including Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio who has since risen from the dead.

This happened to be the first book that I read in the series as I was doing Hugo reading and man was this a poor place to join the series, since it’s all based in the history instead of the main characters. But I certainly wanted more, which is why I’m back now.

Solid series, and this penultimate entry is no exception, diving into a lot of the worldbuilding in a very interesting way as we find out more about the history as the characters do in this penultimate entry.

MOVIE REVIEW: Black Panther

written by David Steffen

Black Panther is a 2018 science fiction superhero film by Marvel Studios, based on Marvel’s Black Panther character established in 1966. This is the first film starring the Marvel hero, who has gone on to be featured in other Marvel films.

The story is rooted in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which keeps much of its culture and economy a secret from the outside world. Unbeknownst to most outsiders, they are the most technologically advanced country in the world, rooted in an early discovery of vibranium (a fictional substance in the Marvel universe that, among other things, is what Captain America’s shield is made from). For many generations, most of the subcultures of Wakanda have been united under the leadership of a king who is also the Black Panther, made special by the ingestion of a heart-shaped herb that grows only there and gives that person superhuman abilities.

The old king has died, and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir, is called back to Wakanda to become the king and Black Panther. But what would normally be a relatively smooth succession marked more by rituals of contention than any real contention is thrown into turmoil by the appearance of a man who calls himself Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American special operative that claims to have a claim to the throne among other attempts at the throne including attacks from black-market arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis).

This is one of my favorite Marvel films. There is a lot of special effects eye candy with the really interesting Wakandan technology that is inspired by African styles but with its own technological flare, intended to be its own thing apart from Western technology. The cast is wonderful, and is a rarity in Hollywood films for being majority of the African diaspora, which was refreshing. The story is compelling and action-packed. Highly recommended!

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between August 2010-April 2011. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here, Volume 3 here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. But trouble seems to follow them wherever they go, much of it tied to their family estate Key House which has magic hidden everywhere in it, much of it in the forms of magical keys, each with their own extraordinary abilities: the ghost key that can project your spirit from your body for a time, the head key that allows you and others to manipulate your own memories and thoughts, the crown of shadows that lets you command the very shadows to do your bidding. And new keys are turning up all the time. And with a mysterious enemy, a mysterious woman from the well, attacking them to get the keys at every turn, it’s an arms race to try to stay safe and stay alive.

As this story starts off, seven-year-old Bode finds a new key which can turn anyone into an animal form and soon he is off adventuring with it. This is one of my favorite sequences of the entire series, with much of the illustration in homage to Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, which is very appropriate since the animal transformation is very much in the spirit of Calvin & Hobbes. Of course, it wouldn’t be Locke and Key without its own dire and dark and compelling danger of it.

This series continues to be one of my favorites of all time and I’m looking forward to seeing the tv show!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #12: Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2004 film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters, a surreal fantasy/science fiction story about taking a big step to help your mother understand you, among other things.

The film starts out speculative in the first few seconds, even before the first person has shown on the screen. We see a constellation in the sky that looks a bit like Orion, though it’s more likely the Scissor Sisters logo. A shooting star fires into the middle of where its belt would be which causes other stars to shoot off in all directions, and one drifts slowly down onto grass. From this, I conclude that although this story involves space, it is a fantastical one rather than one attempting to operate by known laws of physics, since all of this makes no sense in terms of our understanding of celestial bodies.

The star, a literal two-dimensional five-pointed star, drifts to the ground on a planet (earth?) among the grass, and with supernatural speed forms a plant with a bud that blooms into a flower while at the same time disgorging a floating piano with a woman in a blue dress lying on top of it and a man in front of it playing a guitar. Given that these people were born from an exploding flower, it seems unlikely that they are the human people that they appear to be; this impression is only reinforced by the fact that this floating spore spins wildly around, including upside down, without dislodging its passengers in its flight. So, given the evidence, this seems to most likely be an alien spore of a pod person type alien race. It’s not clear how the spore knew that it should create human-looking simulacra, since it has not established contact with anything, though maybe it found traces of DNA in the ground or perhaps this kind of spore is pre-configured for what kinds of people are known to be on this planet.

A man appears in the foreground, facing away from the spore, not outwardly acknowledging their existence, and possibly not consciously aware of them, but when he begins singing to their tune it becomes clear that they are exerting their influence on him, whether or not he is consciously aware of them.

He sings lyrics about trying to grow up “like a good boy oughta” and how he is the favorite of his mother, and the girls all like him because he’s handsome, likes to talk, and is fun. As he’s singing this, the landscape behind him transforms, hills and tractor and cows and bar popping up seemingly two-dimensional like they are a pop-up book. And another man appears, who I think may be an analog for the singer himself, as a woman appears and kisses him on the cheek leaving a red lipstick print. She appears to be the same woman depicted on the floating spore-piano, which raises the question of whether she is the pod-person or whether she is the human being that was copied by the pod-person. A rocket-propelled… jukebox, I think?… chases some kind of winged creature in the background.

“Now the girl’s gone missing and your house has got an empty bed.” Has the girl gone missing because she has been replaced by a pod person? Did he move out of his house? “Folks’ll wonder ’bout the wedding, they won’t listen to a word you said?” My best guess is that he discovered that she was a pod person and managed to defend himself or flee but no one will listen to his dire warnings about the invasion and instead are hyper-focused on trying to resolve what they imagine to be a minor relationship dispute.

These last couple of lines are sang by the ensemble we’ve seen so far singing as a band on the comparatively gargantuan open palms of a woman (the singer’s mother?) who looks suspiciously like the pod woman on the piano who looks down at them with a shake of her head and then throws them up with apparently superhuman strength as all of the band members literally fly up into orbit. From this I gather that she must be the woman that the pod woman has based her form on , and part of her head shake is disapproval at this fraud copying her form as she tries to return the pod woman who copied her and the other copies back to space from whence they came to trouble her no more.

The band continues to play and to dance in space, though the main singer has changed his denim overalls for feathery white overalls. There begins the refrain of the song “Gonna take your mama out all night, yeah we’ll show you what it’s all about. We’ll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne and let the good times all roll out.” Given how the mother reacted before, this taking out of the mother on the town is an attempt on the part of the pod people to keep her from rejecting them and launching them back into space and being forced to deal with traumatic re-entry again and again. Is there a reason they can’t just land somewhere far away from the mother where their subterfuge would go better undetected since the humans they are mimicking would not be nearby to notice, or is their continued existence dependent on being nearby the people they are emulating. Or is she some kind of authority here on alien invasions and likely to be called in to intervene wherever people are acting strangely?

He eventually falls back down to earth, only to fly back up and down again, apparently not in control of this movement. “It’s a struggle living like a good boy oughtta”, no doubt when you have visited outer space with pod people and you may or may not be a pod person yourself, it is hard to live in the cultural norms of your own rural area. “When your mama heard how you’ve been talking, I try to tell you that all she wanna do is cry.” This could mean talking by saying things that are against the cultural norms in this rural area, or it could be talking in alien language to the other pod people coordinating.

The song finishes with our protagonist jamming with the pod people in space again, singing the refrain about taking your mama out all night again, before eventually turning into the Scissors Sisters constellation again–presumably this is part of the pod people reproductive cycle since that’s where the original spore came from.

This is a very interesting science fictional tale about pod people trying to fit into society to survive and earn the right to be themselves among others like them.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be Iron by Woodkid.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls is a 2019 graphic novel for kids, the seventh in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

Our hero Dog Man (half dog, half policeman) is a hero and a very good boy, but sometimes he has a reputation for being… easily distracted. It’s hard to depend on a hero who chases anything that resembles a ball even when he’s in the middle of a chase. He asks his friends, Lil’ Petey and 80HD, for help getting over this obsession and they are so effective at it that his loving obsession turns into a phobia, which the city’s villains notice as a weakness they can exploit.

Meanwhile, the once-villain who has started to turn a new leaf decides to start a new life with his immature clone Lil’ Petey, whom he had originally created to help with his evil schemes but found that the young clone was so good-natured and loving and considered him a father. At first Petey had resisted the insistence of Lil’ Petey that he could be good, but he started to see that point of view. But now as he is ready to settle into a simpler life, Petey’s own father, a crook who instilled Petey’s criminal tendencies in him at a young age, has come to town.

More fun from the Dog Man and gang, if you liked the earlier books odds are you’ll like this one too!

TABLETOP GAME REVIEW: Dog Man: Attack of the Fleas

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: Attack of the Fleas is a cooperative children’s board game released in 2019 based on Dav Pilkey’s popular ongoing Dog Man series of books about a hero with the body of a policeman and the head of a dog (Dav Pilkey is also the author of the Captain Underpants series).

The board game follows some of the plot of Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas (previously reviewed here) wherein some of the main villain Petey’s enemies from his childhood resurface and come back to terrorize him and the city in a robo-brontosaurus. The heroes of the game are the Supa Buddies: The Bark Knight (Dog Man’s superhero alter-ego), Cat Kid (his friend Lil’ Petey’s superhero alter-ego), and Lightning Dude (their mutual robot friend 80HD’s superhero alter-ego), and their enemy is the fleas piloting the Robo-Brontosaurus.

The fleas act as a sort of a non-player character in the game, starting on one end of the board and traversing to the other side of the board as you spin the wheel for them as if they were another player. They take turns with the other players who play as members of the Supa Buddies and their friends. The Supa Buddies have to explore the board to find items that may help them on their way, some items helping movement, but most importantly the shrink ray. When a player gets a shrink ray and can land on the same square as the fleas, then they can use the shrink ray to destroy one of the three parts of the robo-brontosaurus. When all of the parts are destroyed, they have to return home quickly to win the game.

The game is pretty fun, though driven more by the randomness of the spins and the item placement than by any skill. It is nice to have a cooperative, rather than competitive, board game for kid’s this age, especially since they’ll be more likely to get frustrated.

The overall game dynamic works pretty well, but in my opinion the “get back home in a limited number of turns” rule is both absurd and kind of wrecks the balance of the game. When your movement on the board is determined by randomly spinning the wheel it’s hard to get anywhere both ACCURATELY and QUICKLY unless you hoard a movement card for it, which seems like it would be harder for kids in the target age group to decide to do. (you could always make your own house rule to ignore this of course).

Audience
Early grade school or preschool would probably like this the most.

Challenge
Mostly based on chance, with a bit of strategy about hoarding movement card for the end.

Session Time
Pretty quick, probably 10 minutes.

Replayability
Except for very young players, I think the novelty would wear out pretty quickly, though those players especially if they are fans of Dog Man, may like it for quite some time.

Originality
Of course much of its appeal is in the character branding, I thought the dynamic was interesting with the adversary acting as an independent character.

Overall
The MSRP seems to be about $20–if you’ve got a kid who’s a big fan of Dog Man and in early grade school, you might want to give it a try.

DP FICTION #66B: “For Want of Human Parts” by Casey Lucas

A woman takes the subway most mornings. She wears bold, bright colours. She curls her hair. She is beautiful, smooth, and human, and her skin is flush with veins and her veins are flush with life. Bone Pile watches her go from its place in the storm drain, a backlog of washed-up parts and autumn leaves and trash. The woman always arrives when the hands on the clock across the street are pointing at certain angles. Some days Bone Pile is lucky and she walks past its resting place twice.

The woman cuts down the street in her high-heeled shoes and descends to St. Patrick Station with her blood-red lipstick and victory rolls. The flare of her skirts and the streak of her eyeliner remind Bone Pile of a bygone era, not that it knows what a bygone era is. But something about her feels like home. Like a place Bone Pile can still remember.

It has to meet her.

But in order to meet her, it must rebuild itself. For years it has rattled through gutters and drains, scuttling through tunnels and pipes to avoid the wary eyes of humans. To escape the glare of the sun. So few of its original parts are left, and it does not know where on its journey it even lost them.

Some time ago, Bone Pile tumbled down into this place, washed through gutter after gutter until enough pieces tumbled inside to lodge in this grate. This gave Bone Pile, for the first time in decades, a view to the outside world. The world has changed since Bone Pile walked alive upon it, and in what remains of its brain, Bone Pile attempts to reconcile the fragments of its memories with this too-new too-fast too-bright reality.

Bone Pile waits until dark. Then, with a shudder, it stretches free of the plastered wads of leaves and newspaper that have cocooned it to the storm drain’s wall. The flaky stuff peels away, cracking, and with a creak and a flex Bone Pile uncurls. It is a slithering length of vertebrae woven through with old hair and garbage, curls of ribcage clinging stubbornly amid the mess. Its jaw flaps uselessly, the mandible swaying low and detached from what remains of its caved-in skull. Four cracked knuckles grip and twitch as it tests its strength.

Bone Pile needs another hand.

Out into the dark and silent street it sends its seeking ribs. Twisted together with knots of rotted cloth, its ribcage scuttles spider-like out into the night. Bone Pile watches it go. Each skittering step the ribs take saps more energy from Bone Pile until it slouches, exhausted, resting its cracked and battered brow against the concrete. Go, it tells its ribs. I will be here when you return.

Ribcage is careful as it creeps across the asphalt. It remembers the time it strayed too close to living eyes. The shrieks, the stomps, the feeling of being disarticulated and kicked to pieces by a frenzied, terrified human.

Discarded in a gutter, fabric shredded by the wind, lies an umbrella. Ribcage feels along its aluminium fingers, testing the strength of its joints. It delights at the spring and snap of the hinge mechanism that pops the umbrella open, the squeal of metal as it bends.

This will do.

*

Bone Pile strokes Ribcage with its remaining fingers after Ribcage drags the umbrella home. With patience, it peels the fabric into strips and binds its sagging joints. It assimilates the material, strains against it, testing the bounds of its supports. Cracking the umbrella’s metal frame, breaking it down into its base parts, it sheathes metal rods into its skeleton, twisting them just so, sliding them up and in past rubber-band tendons and bottle cap joints.

Bone Pile curls against itself, nestling among the newspapers, and sleeps. Sleep will knit its new body together, and when it wakes it will be stronger.

*

For the next four days, the woman with the blood-red lips does not appear. It has been so long since Bone Pile was alive that it does not miss life, but it finds it misses her.

Over those four chilly autumn nights, Bone Pile prepares. It gathers more into itself: the cracked remnants of a push-broom make a serviceable leg, woven through with bungee cords salvaged from a dumpster. It can crawl through the pipes with ease now, broadening its search for new pieces, so that when the woman returns it will be ready.

At the bottom of a plunging sewer shaft, it discovers scattered metatarsals and the fractured halves of a kneecap. Bone Pile cradles the patella in its new, creaky-umbrella hand and wonders:

Was this a part of me?

It is now.

*

When the woman with the blood-red lips finally returns, Bone Pile shudders with relief. The hands on the clock say the right time now, and it now remembers what those hands mean: eight twenty. She is wearing a brilliant purple peacoat. The wool of it looks soft. Bone Pile longs to touch it. It drags its scratchy push-broom foot along the tunnel wall, rasping, and a thought occurs in the remnants of its mind: Her clothes are beautiful. Bone Pile needs clothes.

The clothes that find their way into Bone Pile’s domain will not do. Their colours are drab, faded by sun and drowned in sewage. This far below ground, everything seems to end up brown. Bone Pile needs eyes that can see more colours than brown, so it gorges itself on rats and strings together a garland of their nerves, tiny eyeballs peeking every which way, and dons them as a crown. It can see in all directions now.

Come sundown, Bone Pile shivers up to the streets.

The best place to find human clothing is on humans.

Humans have hurt Bone Pile before, but it does not want to hurt them. It rasps its way free of the storm drain, levering slowly on its newfound joints until it can hunch in against itself, a protective crouch. There are no humans in sight.

Seeking with its many newfound eyes, Bone Pile comes across a human who seems to be resting. She leans against the door of a car, speaking loudly to someone unseen. She is wearing a charcoal-coloured raincoat and a plush blue plaid scarf. The wool of the scarf looks so soft that Bone Pile momentarily both remembers and misses what it feels like to have skin.

Bone Pile is certain it remembers how to speak. It will ask the woman for her coat and her scarf.

“TSSSSSSSSSSSSSS,” hisses Bone Pile from its semblance of a mouth.

The woman looks up. For a moment she stares, as if she cannot quite comprehend what she is seeing, then she screams until she’s out of voice. Bone Pile reaches out, an attempt to assure the woman that it means her no harm. Its fingers just barely touch the woollen yarn of that bright blue scarf and the moment of contact sends the woman into a spasm of motion.

Still screaming, the gurgling inner-workings of a human throat too complicated for Bone Pile, she thrashes free of those comforting hands and stumbles off down the street. She screams the word “MONSTER” into the glowing box she holds inside her hand. A voice rattles back, too far away to understand, and it sounds like the radio.

Radio. Bone Pile remembers the radio. Voices and music carried from far-away places to its waiting ears, ears that could once hold earrings and whispers both. Somewhere there’s music, how faint the tune.

The scarf dangles from Bone Pile’s fingers. It did not mean to scare her.

As it turns to shuffle home, Bone Pile catches sight of itself in the side mirror of the car. The tangled, tufted skull, the dangling toothless jaw, the coronet of eyes. Bone Pile needs a better face. It snaps the mirror from the car with a single twist of its umbrella-hinge hand and clambers downward, toward home. It thinks about radio as it collapses into sleep.

*

Radio wasn’t always yelling voices that sounded far away. Sometimes, radio was the crack of a baseball bat and the sounds of thousands cheering. During the best times, radio was music.

Bone Pile feels ready. It does not internalize the word monster. It refuses. It internalizes music. Or perhaps it simply remembers. Les Paul and Mary Ford. The Tennessee Waltz. Elvis Presley. Those words rattle in its head like a handful of loose teeth.

The next time it sees the woman with blood-red lips, Bone Pile will say hello.

*

When it finally sees her, the shiver that quakes through Bone Pile is almost enough to dislodge a couple bottle caps. But it straightens itself out. It curls its fingers, digging at the wall in an attempt to soothe its anxiety. Nerves roil where its stomach might once have been. Fluttering blinks strobe down its crown of eyes. Bone Pile adjusts the scarf about its throat, covers its half-hinged jaw, and takes a moment to trace its bony phalanges over its newly-acquired face.

Bone Pile shuffles to the storm drain, watching the woman’s feet. Today she is wearing neon orange heels that click-clack pleasantly with her every step, and the sound of it is music to Bone Pile’s sensory organs.

It seeks its feelers out through the grate to greet her.

“TSSSSSSSSSSSSS,” hisses Bone Pile.

The woman keeps walking. She doesn’t even look down.

She walks right past the grate as if she hadn’t heard a thing.

Something cracks in Bone Pile’s chest, near where it has built itself a sternum from an old bicycle seat. Bone Pile remembers this part of being alive: the sting of rejection, the cold creeping loneliness of going unnoticed. Of trying and being ignored.

Bone Pile needs a voice.

*

Bone Pile finds its voice in a human’s purse. A couple of them sit, drunk, on a curb. They’re mashing their mouths together, hands wandering places that hands wouldn’t have gone in public back when Bone Pile was a human, and frustration tightens the hitches of Bone Pile’s bungee cords and whistles through its empty throat like steam through a kettle. It surges at them, wailing, frustrated, but the hollow tube of its debris oesophagus merely hisses air.

“TSSSSSSSSSSS.”

Horrified, screaming, the humans stumble away in such a hurry that they leave all their belongings behind.

Bone Pile sinks atop the things they’ve left, subsuming them. It feeds on half-finished hamburgers left in two brown paper bags: meat and carbohydrates and paper, a rich feast of proteins. It gropes its human bone fingers through the woman’s handbag, exploring the interior, the many shapes inside that are familiar yet not.

Down the pipes, lurking out of sight, Bone Pile weaves itself a set of vocal cords from dental floss. It jingles a set of keys in its umbrella-claw fingers, remembering what keys felt like in a human appendage. Keys lead to places. Keys open things.

Bone Pile remembers walking through a door. A man was waiting on the other side. Bone Pile was so excited to meet him. A stirring of excitement it has never felt for anyone but the woman with blood-red lips.

Bone Pile may be a monster, but more and more these days, it remembers when it was not.

“How high the moon… is the name of the song… how high the moon.” Bone Pile sings, the minty fresh twang of its dental floss voice like the crunch of dry leaves underfoot.

*

Bone Pile cannot work up the nerve to sing to the woman when it first sees her. Too much morning. Too much light. Too many others that might see. It lets her walk past. If she takes the subway home that evening, today will be the day. Something inside its dregs gives a nervous quiver and it shivers up from the storm drain and down a nearby alley, waiting.

The sky has long since grown dark when Bone Pile spots the woman once more. She walks up from St Patrick Station in that brilliant purple coat again, and before Bone Pile can contain itself, it’s jingling the keys to get her attention. Its hand trembles, eager, and she jerks her head toward the sound.

From aboveground. Bone Pile can see all of her. She is more than beautiful–she is colour and sound and life. From the click of her heels to the red of her lips, she’s like a glimpse into a past that Bone Pile only just now understands it had.

“H-hello,” Bone Pile whispers.

The woman squints. She can’t quite see into the alley, recessed from streetlamps as it is. She takes a couple steps forward. Bone Pile shivers. Please don’t let her be afraid.

“Is someone there?”

Bone Pile has not had a human conversation in forty years. Bone Pile was never good at conversations to begin with. It remembers tense afternoons at home, silently working in the kitchen, praying its husband would keep to himself. Bone Pile had a husband.

“I’m here,” it wheezes. It reaches for her. Reaches for a vision of itself that it had forgotten.

Oh no. No. She’s screaming just like the others. Bone Pile stammers, shuffling back–it knows not to chase her, even as it aches to reassure her. The woman parts her blood-red mouth but no sound comes out. Her soft-looking skin goes pale.

“Please,” Bone Pile stammers. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t—”

But by the time it says “hurt you” she has run off down the street. She screams more, and each scream twists through Bone Pile like a knife. Bone Pile remembers in an abstract way that it knows exactly how it feels to be stabbed. How it had real organs once, and under the right hand they shredded so easily.

Slinking, dejected, back toward home, Bone Pile does not look up. It does not realise the woman’s screams have drawn attention.

“What the fuck—” A human man stands there in the alley’s mouth. Bone Pile has run right into him. Either he is not so scared or he channels his fear in a way the others do not, because instead of running he charges.

Bone Pile is swept off its feet as the man tackles it to the ground. The impact is shattering. Knucklebones rattle away along the sidewalk. Bone Pile’s rat-eye crown slips sideways and it goes blind.

The man strikes at it by reflex and when his fists collide with Bone Pile’s body, parts fly free in a shower of detritus. The bicycle seat tumbles free of Bone Pile’s chest. The dental floss frays. With a horrified groan, Bone Pile attempts to wriggle loose. The man seems to realize what he’s just put his fists into, because his voice rises into a shrill wail of terror too, and for a moment he and Bone Pile are screaming together.

He swings again and this time his fist connects with Bone Pile’s shiny new face, the special face it built just for today. The glass of the car side-mirror shatters. Blood erupts from the man’s knuckles. He jerks back, stunned, and this is when Bone Pile can make its escape.

Lurching sideways with all its might, Bone Pile tries to drag itself toward the storm drain. Its legs are tangled with the man’s, so it twists the remnants of its spine and leaves them behind. The push-broom clatters lifeless to the ground.

Shivering uncontrollably, its consciousness made animal by fear, Bone Pile retreats into the darkness of the sewers. So far from many of its parts, it grows sluggish. It can no longer see the same way that it could, missing its borrowed eyes. It feels its way deep into the dark and settles into a pool of putrid water. The flow of sewage seeps through the hole cracked in Bone Pile’s skull and it misses the woman and it misses its life and every action comes slower than the last.

Bone Pile is so, so tired.

*

It is a crisp spring morning, the last grasp of winter not quite having let go. Kelly Chabot stands with her hands in her pockets, staring down the mouth of an alleyway. It leads to the back of a beauty salon. Apart from a dumpster and the cracked and broken remnants of an old broom on the ground, there isn’t much to look at.

She knows exactly how many days it’s been since she saw the creature. And it was a creature, she tells herself. She’s certain. One hundred and forty-nine days ago, a creature tried to lure her into this alley to…

To what?

That’s the part she can’t answer. She was certain it was going to kill her with those gnashing metal claws. And the smell. The smell…

But in her dreams she hears its voice. How afraid it sounded. How if anything it sounded like it was pleading with her. How the whole incident had started with a meek and gentle hello.

She took a different route to work for the longest time, but now in the spring sunlight she feels like she can face this place again. And there’s nothing sinister about it at all.

Stepping out of the alley, she looks up and down the road. Sparsely populated this time of day. She turns a look across the street. The bank across the way sports a squat little clock tower which informs her it’s one in the afternoon.

While her eyes are occupied by the clock tower, she trips, foot hitching on a lip of concrete on the sidewalk. She catches herself, arms akimbo, and looks down by reflex.

There in the gutter, the shards of a shattered mirror reflect her wide eyes and her startled, open mouth. Just as that same glass reflected her face when embedded in the horrifying, guts-and-garbage body of that thing. Kelly staggers back from the storm drain, far enough away that she’s out of ankle-grabbing range, but now that she’s come all this way she can’t not look.

She crouches down, cautious, cagey, creeping forward a little at a time and peeking through the half-rotted grate. Then she sees it. She recoils in disgust when she spies a snapped-off piece of what can only be a human jawbone tangled in the leaves and trash.

Kelly does the right thing. She slips her phone out of her pocket and calls the police.

*

It’s doubtful anyone will ever figure out how Ingrid Martel died, but at least they found enough teeth to identify her by, even if it took almost a year.

Kelly stands outside Batham and Sons Funeral Home in Five Points. There are few cars in the parking lot and the elegant wooden doors are propped invitingly open, as if in silent supplication to passers-by. A plea to fill the pews, to not let this woman’s final procession pass through an empty room.

Ingrid Martel doesn’t have many living relatives. The daughter who submitted her missing persons report died back in ninety-nine. And the more Kelly thinks on it, the more she supposes that even being blood related to Ingrid might mean little to people these days. She vanished so long ago. None of the people inside this building ever met her.

And Kelly doesn’t know her either. So why is she even here?

She can’t explain it. The strange tug she feels in her stomach when she thinks back to that night in the alley, the gleaming metal hand outstretched toward her.

She wants to look inside. She imagines the interior of the funeral home, all warm-toned wood and tasteful flowers. Lilies, maybe. She imagines a portrait of Ingrid in a glossy wooden frame: a blond-curled beauty with a gentle smile and shy eyes. She imagines all this while standing on the street outside because she can’t bear to take that first step through the door.

When she closes her eyes, she sees a hand outstretched toward her own. A hand of snapped-off mangled metal and garbage. It is crazy—it is absolutely stark raving bonkers—to think that Ingrid beckoned her into that alley somehow.

Yet when Kelly steps into the parlour, she can’t stop staring at the coffin. She imagines the bones inside, wonders just how many the police had found.

She wonders whether they are truly inert.


© 2020 by Andrew K Hoe by Casey Lucas

Author’s Note: The original draft of this story came to be when I was bedridden after a sudden illness. Though it’s ostensibly a story about a weird sludgy trash monster, it was born from my experiences of how odd it felt to move through the world with a newly-acquired autoimmune disease, how nobody seemed to see my body for what it was. Putting on the right clothes and makeup seemed to be enough to completely fool the world, to cloak the reality that my body felt like a handful of disarticulated parts that weren’t working in tandem with one another or functioning properly. When we experience distance from our own bodies, it can be as frightening as something violent befalling them. I’ve since grown into my newly-disabled body and learned to work within its limitations and appreciate that it isn’t lesser or undeserving of dignity, but those first few months were strange and alien and terrifying and writing this story was one of the first steps toward catharsis. 

Lucas made the shortlist for two 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand’s highest honour in science fiction and fantasy writing. She took out the win for Best Short Story and her web serial Into the Mire was a finalist for Best Collected Work.
website – www.intothemire.com

twitter – @CaseyLucasQuaid 


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GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between November 2009-July 2010. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. One of the teenagers, Sam Lesser, escaped from a mental institution and followed them to Lovecraft to try to kill them again, with the assistance of a powerful but mysterious supernatural entity that is connected with Key House, the family estate in Lovecraft.

Key House has a lot of secrets, many of them taking the form of magical keys with incredible powers. More and more of them have been turning up, both to the kids themselves and to the entity that opposes them. It’s a magical arms race with high stakes, where their enemy is more powerful and knows all the rules.

The series continues to be riveting, creepy, and fun. Highly recommended!