The Game

She hesitated on the sidewalk, reining in the little power she had left. A gentle puff of electricity swirled through chestnut hair, brightened green eyes. She smoothed down the front of her dress and hiked her purse strap higher up onto her shoulder with trembling fingers. Slightly more composed, she opened the door and stepped inside.

***

Out in the street, Stewart pedaled his Affinity Metropolitan straight into oncoming traffic. Upon awaking in the hospital a few hours later with a head full of stitches and a broken pelvis, he tried to tell his nurse about the woman he’d seen burst into flames and walk into a diner just before the accident. The nurse listened and nodded comfortingly, then went to find the doctor to adjust his medication. This kind of thing happened all the time.

***

Twenty-eight steps from the front door to the corner booth, every one punctuated by throbbing hunger pangs. She stumbled – a movement nearly imperceptible to the human eye – then made a show of stopping at the pie display to admire the last gooey slice of rhubarb. A deep breath. A shiver. Only ten steps to go.

The upholstered leather booth was dingy and cracked, a remnant of better times. It welcomed her weight as she half stumbled, half slid into place. A spot like this was not her usual taste – too open, too bright – but there was no choice. The hunger was too great. She’d gone far too long, and the consequences were making themselves known. Death was not far.

***

Claire had always had a knack for discovering a person’s tell. She could place an undercover cop, a cheating husband, a struggling artist, or a call girl with a glance. Even after fifteen years of waiting tables at the diner, playing The Game (as her coworkers had dubbed it) still gave her some satisfaction. Her first thought when the woman in white walked in was simply, “lost”. From the Italian leather boots to the curious brocade purse, to the old-fashioned, full-skirted silk dress (obviously custom-made), nothing about the new customer fit the diner.

Claire watched her newest puzzle glide through the restaurant, stopping to inspect a piece of day old pie on her way to the booth in the back corner. The only real clue was the relief, a barely noticeable slump of the shoulders, a split-second feeling that the woman was collapsing into her seat. Could she be a high-end junkie, starting her final descent? The Game was definitely afoot. Claire grabbed the coffee pot. This was going to be fun.

***

From her purse came the cards – her mother’s, and her mother’s mother’s before that. Smooth squares of bone, so thin as to be nearly translucent, so strong that a human would naturally wonder just whose bones they had been. The squares took their places, turning clockwise, images matching, stories being told. It wasn’t necessary to take a reading of her situation – her body was giving her all the information she needed – but the cards brought with them their own energy, helped her replenish just a touch.

The waitress hovered, brought coffee and silverware, peered at the cards with curious eyes. Her voice seemed to come from another room: “Do you need to see a menu, hon?”

Hon. She paused in mid placement of a card. It bowed within the involuntary vise grip of her fist. If she weren’t so desperately hungry, she thought. If only it didn’t matter so much that this place remain. The tiny flame of rage sputtered out, and she managed a wan smile at the middle-aged busybody in the checked apron. “No thank you, I’m waiting for someone.”

***

He’d always genuinely loved his work, but today he was ready for a break. Luckily, his kind of job was always a freelance thing, so he could call his own shots. Quitting time was just around the corner. Suddenly, he had a powerful urge for pie. Rhubarb pie, to be exact.

It had been a strange day – lots of near misses. The dynamic was off somehow, but he couldn’t place it. There was one last stop to make on his rounds, and then maybe he’d head over to the diner to think over his day and definitely do something about this craving.

He strolled down the corridor, relishing, as always, the tiny things that made up his day. The disinfectant smell, the soft, rubbery footsteps of the nurses, most of all, the hacking coughs, belabored breathing, and meaty gurgles that were almost, but not quite, masked by the soft drone of soap operas and infomercials. There’s no place like home.

Ah. Room 318. Stew the bike messenger, clumsy boy. Too bad about the drug interaction. Good thing the hospital had deep pockets. They’d need it for the lawsuit.

He waited around for the monitor to flatline, then congratulated himself for a job well done. Time for some pie.

***

It had to be soon. She could feel the hunger chipping away at what remained of her composure. The cards told their stories, assured her that it was not too late, reminded her that the last time had felt much the same. But everything seemed to burn hotter today. She was ravenous, and like all true hunger, this sensation obliterated all that had come before.

***

The electronic bell above the diner door chirped merrily as a new customer entered. Claire looked up from counting out change at the cash register. It was her regular, the doctor (or at least, that’s what The Game had told her). So funny, that one! Such a mess, too. That unruly mop of hair, and those weird t-shirts with aliens and cartoon characters, worn with scrubs and Chuck Taylors. One of the other waitresses had called him a “fanboy” once, whatever that meant.

For some reason, she always had trouble remembering his name, even though he came in at least once a week. Tonight as she searched her mental banks for the elusive moniker, she wondered if this was a sign that she should be thinking about getting out of the business. She hurried over to the pie display to get that last slice of rhubarb. At least she could remember his order, if not his name.

***

He could feel the crackle of energy in the air as he walked in the diner. The hair on the back of his neck began to rise up in alarm, or maybe celebration. This explained everything. A slow smile played on his lips even as his heart quickened. She was here. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. Starving, come to think of it. Thank goodness for his main squeeze, Claire. The older waitress smiled and handed him his customary pie and a fork on his way to the booth in the back corner.

***

She gathered the cards, careful to thank them before putting them back in the purse. They had told true. The wait was worth it. He was here, sly as ever, darkness dancing in those curious eyes. He didn’t take them off of her, even as he happily wolfed down the last slice of rhubarb pie in the two seconds it took to cross the room. She was suddenly jealous of that slice of pie. She hated it. She began to burn again in earnest under his gaze – part anger, part madness, all hunger and need.

He dropped the plate on the table and held out his hand, “My Life, ready to go home? I have a few things in mind.” That naughty grin never failed to take her breath away, even after all these millennia.

“I thought you’d never get here!” She slid out of the booth and to his side, no stumbling, all grace again.

***

The official report explained it as a freak accident caused by friction and a slight gas leak. A few of those myth busting TV shows tried to recreate the explosion, but no one could ever entirely explain how it happened. In a restaurant full of people, with no gas line in the dining room, how does a single booth explode without harming anything or anyone around it?

Claire never bothered telling her side of the story about how she stopped waiting tables, about her final discovery in The Game. Who would have believed her, anyway? A nerdy doctor and a junkie witch kiss and burst into black flames, then disappear, leaving behind them a night-rocking explosion and thousands of dollars in sprinkler damage? Yeah, right.

 

(This was written in response to today’s Daily Post Prompt, my personal take on anticipation and delight.)

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The Daily Post’s Creative Writing Challenge: Metamorphosis

black_cat_eye_by_Drehli

“Black Cat Eye” by Drehli

The following post is a response to a creative writing prompt issued by The Daily Post. Today’s assignment was to tell a story of human-animal transformation.

*************

In the movies, the detectives always tell the grieving widow that the victim’s end was painless, and that he didn’t feel a thing. That it was quick, and he probably didn’t even know what was happening.

But I knew. I knew, and I felt every second. The blood was flowing out of my gut and into a sticky, steaming puddle, and I guess to anyone else it would have been pretty obvious that I was a goner. But leaving wasn’t a possibility. I’ve always been an optimist, you know?

I didn’t know my killer. Still not entirely sure why he chose my apartment to rifle through, or why he stuck around to beat the shit out of me after cutting open all of my couch cushions. Maybe if I’d been a little smarter, if I hadn’t grabbed a kitchen knife for self defense, I’d still be around to figure all of those bits out. But I did grab a knife, and I did try to stab him, and next thing I know I’m alone, on the floor, with several large wounds where perfectly good internal organs used to be. My guts were on fire, my legs didn’t work, and that was that.

I had options, of course – scream for the neighbors, find my cell phone, try to crawl to the door. But I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t give up, but looking back, I didn’t exactly try my damndest, either. You can probably tell that that’s something I’ve spent some time rehashing – why just lie there? Still not sure. Except that my mind was racing, the pain was starting to ease off a little, and I desperately wanted to work a little normalcy into the situation. “Why me?” was what was hovering around and around in my last few minutes of humanity.

So it wasn’t sudden, or painless. My life ebbed out onto the crappy linoleum of my crappy kitchen in my crappy little apartment, and there were no sirens in the distance, no heroes pounding down my door. They wouldn’t get there for another three hours. In the end of my life as Joe DeRuth, the only one left to see me off was my cat, Ella. And eventually she got bored and went to take a nap under the overturned couch. She can be such a bitch sometimes.

*************

Once the cops come and find your dead carcass, and the EMTs have a look just to make sure you’re really dead (especially if you’re as fresh as I was), the morgue comes to take the body. The medical examiner takes a look to figure out how you died while the detectives are combing over your belongings to figure out how you lived. Somewhere in there they get in contact with your family and let them know that you’ve kicked the proverbial bucket, and then your folks come to identify the body and collect your belongings.

I was never married, and didn’t have a serious girlfriend. My parents have been dead for years, and the few good buddies I had died in Afghanistan. It was just me and my older sister, Pam. We were close enough, but she loved me more than I knew, apparently. More importantly, she loved my mangy feline, and was at my apartment to collect Ella as soon as the police would let her in. It was Pam’s arrival that told me something was off with my situation. Mostly the realization that I still had a situation to attend to.

I could hear Pam before I saw her. She was outside in the hallway, talking with someone in that gravelly voice of hers. Too many cigarettes; she’s a bundle of nerves, just like our mom was. A rattle of a key ring, a shaky scratch of key in unfamiliar lock, then she and the landlord walked in. I recognized Mrs. Connolly’s old fashioned nursing shoes from my hiding spot under the couch. That was what tipped me off that there was something wrong. Something rumbled in my chest, a little noise of frustration and fear. Why was I under the couch?

I was dead. The blood puddle still clung to the kitchen floor. The apartment was still tossed. My sister, pillar of strength, was standing in the entry, tears openly streaming down her cheeks. She was toting a cat carrier, so she was probably here for Ella. But why was I seeing all of this? Was I a ghost?

“Shhh. Calm down, Joe. Stop being such a freak.”

What the…? My head (I have a head?) snapped around quicker than it ever had when I was alive. The rumbling in my chest intensified of its own accord. In the darkness of the under-the-couch structure, I couldn’t make out much. There definitely wasn’t room for more than one person, but since I was dead, I figured that maybe there would be room for another ghost or two. But there was nothing. “Who’s there?”

“Kitty? Ella! You can come out baby, it’s OK sweet thing.” Pam’s feet were beside the couch now, with Mrs. Connolly’s right behind her.

“Maybe we should tip the couch over.”

“No, I’d hate to accidentally hurt her if we tipped it over wrong. She’ll come out. I know where Joe kept the cat treats.” Both women walked back towards the kitchen, Mrs. Connolly’s feet stopping suddenly at the edge of the linoleum. Pam, ever no-nonsense, stepped right over my blood and straight to the treat drawer. I felt the rumble in my chest stop.

“Oh yum, the salmon ones!” A brick wall of fur pushed past me and into the kitchen. Ella was munching on treats in no time; so much for cats having a conscience.

“I can clearly see how heart broken you are, jerk!” The words were out before I knew it. Ella responded with something that sounded mostly like happy crunching with a garbled “whatever!” thrown in. Pam, on the other hand, scattered a few more treats and then cautiously walked towards the couch. The rumble in my chest started again; what was going on here? How did she hear me?

“Mrs. Connolly, did Joe have any other animals? I could swear I just heard a little growling noise under the couch.” The feet were closer.

“Not that I knew of – he knew he’d have to pay another deposit for any other pets he brought in. I suppose he might have tried to get around that by hiding something from me.” I could already hear the gears turning in the old lady’s head. Good luck getting that deposit back, sis.

The hand snaked in and grabbed me before I had a chance to react. I struggled for a second, then went limp. It was very similar to dying again, but in slow motion over the course of a few seconds. What was going on? How could someone see me? Or touch me? Or grab me? Or yank me out from under the couch and ohsweetjesusthisismeflyingthroughtheair…

And then I was getting a hug from my big sister, and I didn’t really care. I snuggled into her sweater, breathing in the sweet smell of lavender soap and cigarettes.

“Look at you, hogging all the love already. We’re going to have to have a talk about that, dude.” I looked down to see Ella’s big yellow eyes, staring rather murderously up at me.

“Aww, look at it! Isn’t it such a gorgeous little thing, Mrs. Connolly? I wonder why Joe never told me he got a new kitten?” The rumbling in my chest started again in earnest, but this time it felt a little different. It felt familiar, which is kind of funny, since it was my first purr.