JazzTeeth

My Name Is Eri- Ch.3: "Surprise Me"

Sep 5th, 2014
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  1. Your dreams were plain enough, free of ghosts and monsters from the old world. You were grateful when you woke up. You felt even more grateful because Erica was still beside you. She was awake, but her eyes looked clouded
  2.  
  3. “Good morning,” you said.
  4.  
  5. Her hand grazed off your chest and she put a single finger against your lip and chin.
  6.  
  7. “Shhh...”
  8.  
  9. You frowned.
  10.  
  11. “Nah, just screwing with you. Hey.”
  12.  
  13. “Oh, fuck you.”
  14.  
  15. “Not now,” she stretched on the bed. “I'm hungry. How about you?”
  16.  
  17. Your stomach twisted with angry hunger. “Yeah. Definitely. I could probably eat the drywall if I added some salt.”
  18.  
  19. “You're on your own there, guy.”
  20.  
  21. “Damn. Guess I'll settle for real food instead.”
  22.  
  23. Erica thumped you chest and jumped off the bed. “I'll get dressed.” She walked to her pile of clothes in the corner. You were disappointed to see all of her hair tucked back into her hoodie. You liked looking at her.
  24.  
  25. She reapplied her neutralizing jackets, sweaters, and coats layer by layer. Erica adjusted her wears and hopped back to the mattress side. “That was a good idea, by the way. My arm does feel better.”
  26.  
  27. “Told you.”
  28.  
  29. She kicked the bed post. “Up and up now, let's go. No time to waste.”
  30.  
  31. You raised an eyebrow and laughed. “What? Do you have any great plans for today?”
  32.  
  33. “Hell no, but I'll find some trouble to get into.”
  34.  
  35. “Oh God, don't do that.”
  36.  
  37. “No promises. We did your soul searching thing yesterday, now's my turn.”
  38.  
  39. “Oh God.”
  40.  
  41. She grabbed your arm and pulled you up with surprising strength that wouldn't be expected from her lithe body.
  42.  
  43. “Less gripe, more walk. Food, we have to get food. Come, come, come.”
  44.  
  45. She hustled you downstairs. “Can I at least fix my hair in the mirror?” you ventured. “It looks like crap.”
  46.  
  47. “No, it looks hot, don't worry.”
  48.  
  49. “I didn't get to brush my teeth-” you embellished.
  50.  
  51. “Food!” she urged.
  52.  
  53. “Okay!”
  54.  
  55. Half an hour later you and Erica sat on a bench in a small park, picking and fighting over a bag of breakfast stuffs. The meal was acquired with actual money, but Erica didn't resist the opportunity to swap everyone's meals as they left the building for ten minutes. Somewhere a man was angry because his blueberry scone was replaced with a yogurt shake.
  56.  
  57. “Best way to start your day,” she quipped when you finally pulled her way from the deed.
  58.  
  59. You needed a shower. One night in a motel wasn't a financial impossibility, especially if it meant a few first world luxuries like running water. Erica might appreciate staying up all night in a place with no major health and safety violations. Thinking about it, Erica might be happy staying up all night anywhere.
  60.  
  61. “Would you sleep in a grain silo?” you asked.
  62.  
  63. “Sounds like a blast.” She bit into a ham and egg bagel.
  64.  
  65. Something to consider.
  66.  
  67. “So,” she said with a full mouth, “I'm thinking about breaking a lot of rules today. Sneaking into movie theaters, putting plastics in the metal recycle bin, hiding dead bodies in the river. That sort of stuff.” She took another bite. “Then I thought “no, that's too small.””
  68.  
  69. You sipped orange juice.
  70.  
  71. “I want to break a rule of good taste instead. I want to do karaoke.”
  72.  
  73. It took a lot of effort to swallow the juice instead of spitting it out. “You sure you don't want to commit murder instead? If you really want I'll let you stick your hand in everyone's back pocket in the city and you won't hear a peep out of me.”
  74.  
  75. She wiped her mouth. “Oh, I'll do that anyway. I'll switch out peoples underwear while they're still wearing them. In fact, see that big guy over there, the one standing next to the chick in the yellow dress?”
  76.  
  77. You turned around and saw a very big guy standing next to a very small woman in a yellow dress.
  78.  
  79. “Watch this.”
  80.  
  81. “Watch wha- hey where are you going?”
  82.  
  83. Erica hopped over the bench and skipped with devilish joy to the pair. Like a minx, she patted the rears of both unsuspecting victims and hopped away without them noticing.
  84.  
  85. The big guy squawked and fell at the knees, shouting in clear pain about his balls. Yellow Dress leapt in the air, shrieking as a parachute-like pair of boxers drifted away from her skirt. Erica cackled the entire way back and tumbled over the bench's backside and landed head-first in your lap.
  86.  
  87. “Christ, it's a bear trap!” Big Guy cried several yards away.
  88.  
  89. You looked at Erica with admiration and horror. “You can do that to everyone in this park if you wanted too, huh?”
  90.  
  91. She nodded and itched a little bit at her arm. “Could if I wanted too. But that'd get dull kinda fast. Gotta think big.” She patted your cheek and hoisted herself off the bench.
  92.  
  93. You followed her close. Erica looped around streets and shopping districts with no obvious aim. Things happened wherever she walked. Car alarms went off at the barest touch. Street lights popped even though the bulbs were off and sprinkled glass on concrete and startled walkers. Birds swooped en masse, chasing and squawking after victims without provocation.
  94.  
  95. Erica would poke you and say “Look over there,” and sure enough something worth looking at occurred.
  96.  
  97. “One,” She said and pointed a finger across the street.
  98.  
  99. “No one's going to die, are they?”
  100.  
  101. “Two.”
  102.  
  103. You looked across the road. She pointed to a pet shop.
  104.  
  105. “Three.”
  106.  
  107. Dozens and dozens of animals burst through the doors. Bunnies, dogs, cats, snakes, and lizards crawled and padded and piddled into the streets. Equal amounts of panic and amusement set in. People whipped out their phones to take pictures. Cars skidded to a halt to avoid running over small furry things. Erica grabbed your wrist and pulled.
  108.  
  109. “Let's go,” she said. “I'm allergic to pets.”
  110.  
  111. “Erica, what are you doing?”
  112.  
  113. “Hmm?” She still held your arm and kept a brisk pace.
  114.  
  115. “All this weird stuff.”
  116.  
  117. “What about it?”
  118.  
  119. “Is there a point to it?”
  120.  
  121. “Does there need to be a point?” She sounded irritated. “Can't I do stuff just to do it?”
  122.  
  123. “If you want to be a dick, maybe.”
  124.  
  125. She let go of your hand. “Call me a dick. Fine, fine, fine, if you're going to get your panties in a twist,” she griped. “I'm testing people. I want to see what they do when things don't go right. I want to see the looks on their faces, the sweat on their foreheads, and the tone of their voices.” She raised her hands in an apology. “I'm big into social studies. I like watching people. There's so many of them. I want to make their day interesting, and if I can have a good time doing it, why not?”
  126.  
  127. “Someone might get hurt.”
  128.  
  129. “Then it's more interesting than normal. That's just life testing them -it's not all sunshine and good days.”
  130.  
  131. That took you back. She saw it on your face. “Look, I'm not going to hurt anybody. I mean, some people have bird crap in their hair now. Maybe a few knicks around the ear from that glass breaking thing thing, but...” She shook her head. “Just calm down, okay?”
  132.  
  133. She started walking again. “I'm only,” she gestured to the air, “adding a little unpredictability to the mix. It's what makes life worth living.”
  134.  
  135. You stood motionless and watched her disappear into a crowd. It dispersed in a fit when Erica decided to inject a little more interest in their lives.
  136.  
  137. -
  138.  
  139. The day was spent like that. Erica sparked little scenes wherever she walked, to your broad fascination. You hopped on buses and got off in places they weren't designated to go, much to the confusion of other travelers, much less the drivers. It's worth nothing that she did go out of her way to put metal in the recycle bin and snuck into a movie theater -even though the two of you only stayed for the previews. If she found a dead body, you'd have no trouble believing she'd try to stuff it somewhere.
  140.  
  141. Erica spotted a bar and announced it to be a proper karaoke place, to your exhausted relief.
  142.  
  143. “How can you tell?” you asked after hearing her decision.
  144.  
  145. She pointed to the sign that read “Thursday Night Karaoke Special -Local Beer HALF OFF!!!!!”
  146.  
  147. The inside was nice enough. Both roomy enough for friends to gather as they pleased, and close-knit enough to make new, slightly sloshed friends if someone wanted to. A man at one end of the bar was finishing setting up a sound system on a small stage.
  148.  
  149. Erica beamed. “Yes,” she rubbed her hands together. “I'll go sign up.” Already the bar was filling with energetic chatter and bodies whose dress ranged from casual to smart. You wasted no time in securing a table with two chairs. The bar had the vibe of a place that filled its seats fast.
  150.  
  151. You studied the growing crowd with discrete eyes. If Erica enjoyed people watching then this would be the perfect place for her. The close-quarters made you question if she would try to spice things up for the other bar goers. Was she done with her mischief for the day? You worried that her acts on the streets may have only been warm-ups for her real plans.
  152.  
  153. If she bothered to plan, that was.
  154.  
  155. “Should've seen the waiting list. Folks here either really dig karaoke or half-priced beer. Maybe both. It'll be an hour or so 'til the call comes up,”
  156.  
  157. “That's a shame,” you intoned to make it not sound shameful at all. “Guess that gives you an hour to...I dunno. I don't think you have it in you to sit still for an hour in a place like this.”
  158.  
  159. She spun a nearby drink coaster under her finger. “You don't know that. We've been walking all day. My legs are killing me. No. I just want to relax out for a while, listen to people with bad voices screw up bad songs, nothing extreme.”
  160.  
  161. “Sounds great to me,” you said, rubbing a bit of soreness from your knee. You looked towards the bar. It was much cleaner and operational than the one at the shop you spent the night at. Of course, this establishment sold a different kind of treat. One that you didn't mind ordering a glass of.
  162.  
  163. You pointed a thumb to the bar. “Do you want anything?” Erica shook her head.
  164.  
  165. “Um...nah, I'm fine. Or, maybe a some cranberry juice?” You raised an eyebrow and asked if that was all. “Yeah, that's good.” Several moments later you came back with a glass of juice and a half-off bottle of local brew. She sipped from her glass with a straw.
  166.  
  167. “I'm surprised you didn't want anything that had more kick.”
  168.  
  169. Erica shrugged. “Alcohol's not really my thing.” She took another sip. “It turns me into a raging bitch,” she grimaced. “Joking. Joking. To be honest, it's just...eh. Seems kind of a cheat to me.”
  170.  
  171. “Hold it.” You raised a hand. “You'll have to explain that to me because, well, weren't we trekking up and down town all day so you could see people watch and see how they reacted when you made something crazy happen? Put a shot or two of Mr. Cuervo in a man and you'll see a bit of crazy.”
  172.  
  173. “True,” Her finger ran around the glass rim. “But that's the difference: What I make happen? That comes from outside a person's sphere of control. They never see it coming and react on the spot. I see the looks on their eyes as their brain runs through...instinct and panic or rationality, or lack thereof, and...it's a burst of emotion, and, and actions and chain-reactions. It's like fire works, or fluid dynamics. Some crap like that. People act more genuine in those moments.”
  174.  
  175. “So why don't you like drinking?”
  176.  
  177. “Oh, I don't care if people drink, but it cheapens the effect for me. For the most part, if someone knocks back a Long Island, they know what's gonna happen. The world gets a little turvey-topsy for a while and their insides feel all fuzzy and that stage over there,” Her eyebrows indicated the karaoke stand, “starts to look mighty inviting.”
  178.  
  179. She grimaced as a middle-aged woman butchered a note on 'Limelight.' “Uh, is this making sense?”
  180.  
  181. “Is it supposed to?”
  182.  
  183. “Probably not,” she admitted. “I want to see people at their most genuine when life throws a monkey wrench at them, even if it's for a second. It means more to me when their lucid. And stop looking at your beer like that. Don't be a pussy and drink the damn thing before I do.” She knocked on the table.
  184.  
  185. You took a swig from the bottle and looked at it funny. “Why is my bottle full of maple syrup?” Erica covered her mouth to laugh. “Oh. Very funny.”
  186.  
  187. “Like that,” Erica smiled. “Exactly like that. God, you're great to look at.”
  188.  
  189. “You're not a bad sight either.”
  190.  
  191. “Shut up,” she said, but was quick to turn her head to say it. Her shoulders shook as she fought an intense giggle. “Oh my God.”
  192.  
  193. “No, no, it's true,” you said and took another sip of maple syrup. “You have those big bright eyes that are so damn captivating, like a chihuahua.”
  194.  
  195. “I'm going to turn you beer into piss if you don't zip up.”
  196.  
  197. You took another long drink and stared her dead in the eyes, daring her. She covered her eyes with a dangling sleeve that failed to cover a small piece of her smile.
  198.  
  199. “This is what I meant. This is genuine. I could not not have predicted you'd say something dumb like that.” She shook her hood. “God help me, I asked for this.”
  200.  
  201. “You sure did.”
  202.  
  203. She reached across the table and flicked a finger against the bottle, turning it into a proper brew. It tasted pretty good and only a little bit like piss.
  204.  
  205. “You want to know what surprises me the most?” she asked.
  206.  
  207. “What's that?”
  208.  
  209. “You haven't accused me of witchcraft and tried tying me up or setting a torch to me.” She set her chin on her hand and studied you like a book written in an almost-english language. “All things considered, you're taking a lot of this in stride.”
  210.  
  211. “Well, I can call you a witch, if you want. There are enough people in here to get a good sized mob going,” you looked around at the crowd. “Can't be that hard to make a torch, either.”
  212.  
  213. “Sounds like fun, but you don't really want to do that, do you?”
  214.  
  215. “Not really. It'd be a real asshole thing to do for starts, and I'm not a dick like you.”
  216.  
  217. Erica's head tilted and her brows lowered like she was taking aim.
  218.  
  219. You set your bottle down on the table coaster. “Look, you can't pretend that switching out a guy's undies for a pair of lady panties was a neighborly action.”
  220.  
  221. Her eyes widened and she bit her lip. “Never said it was...”
  222.  
  223. “Erica, the things that you can do...” you focused on the table in effort to concentrate. “Yes, they're...either real unlikely or complete, wild coincidences, or entirely impossible and you're either magic or I've lost my mind. But still. They're 'tricks' as you keep telling me over and over-”
  224.  
  225. “And over, and over-”
  226.  
  227. “And over again, yeah. But to be honest, I don't think you're a witch. And whatever it is you're doing, I can't gather the energy to freak out about it, as long as we're not in danger of getting caught. I've stressed out over enough stuff in my life. I just..” you shrugged, “I'm rolling with it. And I really don't want to see you get in trouble.”
  228.  
  229. “I told you not-”
  230.  
  231. “to worry about you, I know.” You looked around the room. “Still. I worry. Witch or not, I don't want to see you burned at the stake.”
  232.  
  233. Her fingers tapped the table as if typing. “I'm not a witch, if that helps any. At least I don't think I am. But thanks, though.”
  234.  
  235. “By the way,” she added. “See that dude over there? Blue shirt? I just made his phone send a one word text to his ex-girlfriend.”
  236.  
  237. “Okay, now that's pretty witchy.”
  238.  
  239. “I don't think so,” she drunk her cranberry juice. “It all depends on how he handles it.”
  240.  
  241. “You've been doing little things to everyone since you first walked in, haven't you?”
  242.  
  243. “Ceaselessly. Nothing big though. It'll have like, a trickle effect.”
  244.  
  245. “So they can deal with it when the alcohol wears off?”
  246.  
  247. “Sorta. I consider it a service. Mind if I talk a little bullshit personal philosophy?”
  248.  
  249. You raised your arm and smiled. “Shoot.”
  250.  
  251. “People come to bars and buy drinks, why? To have fun, get a little wild, meet new people and maybe sleep with them, right? Boil it down and they all want the same thing: a little bit of change. Something different. Sometimes it works, but a lot of time it's just temporary.”
  252.  
  253. She studied her glass and shook the ice. “But no one's going to find any lasting change inside of a bottle. It's a fleeting little taste of experience that may or may not leave you with a headache in the morning, or waking up next to someone who's name you can't remember. I'm giving them something with more staying power. Except for that sleeping thing.” Erica sipped her juice. “That has more after-effects, sometimes.”
  254.  
  255. “But what if they only want a little, temporary state of change? What if they're only after a more relaxing state?”
  256.  
  257. She looked offended. “Then that goes back to people wanting safety nets, and not excitement. Staying power,” she repeated. “Unpredictability. Outside forces converging and running wild don't care about what people want.”
  258.  
  259. “But you're deliberately acting as the outside force. How do you decide who gets it?”
  260.  
  261. “Whim, mostly.”
  262.  
  263. “And what gives you the right to impose that force?”
  264.  
  265. Erica showed you her palms and wiggled her fingers. “I can put that force into motion. I can't waste it.”
  266.  
  267. You had to take a gulp of beer and a moment to think. “So you consider it an obligation?”
  268.  
  269. “A responsibility.”
  270.  
  271. “What the hell were you doing before you got on that bus?”
  272.  
  273. She put her hands beneath the table. “Nothing interesting. That was fine for a while, but...then it was not.”
  274.  
  275. You were going to press the matter when the man at the stage called out your name.
  276.  
  277. “What did that guy just say?”
  278.  
  279. Erica looked at the ceiling with great interest. “Sounds like he wants you to go up and sing a song.”
  280.  
  281. Your mouth hung open like the threads of your jaw fell apart. “You wrote my name on that list, didn't you?”
  282.  
  283. “Someone must have...”
  284.  
  285. “Do you expect me to go up and sing in front of all these strangers?”
  286.  
  287. “I don't know. Do you know the notes to Life On Mars?”
  288.  
  289. “No.”
  290.  
  291. “Then I'm about to have a really great time.” She bobbed in her seat like someone put a wrapped present in front of her.
  292.  
  293. The karaoke guy called your name again.
  294.  
  295. “Better hurry,” she said and crunched on her ice like an innocent princess.
  296.  
  297. “This is definitely a witchy thing to do,” you snapped.
  298.  
  299. “Yep.” Her teeth snapped an ice cube with a loud crack.
  300.  
  301. You drank the rest of your beer and desperately wished for a second. Two moments later someone handed you a microphone to your piqued terror.
  302.  
  303. -
  304.  
  305. It was some hours later. Barkeep made last call. You had that second beer and helped yourself to a therapeutic third. Karaoke man was packing away his sound system and music box, but could not take your embarrassment with him.
  306.  
  307. “You can hold a note,” Erica informed you, “But your couldn't change pitch if a cruise ship full of orphans was on the line. Not like it mattered, no one else paid any attention to you.” She was the only person to let out an audible 'whoop' when you finished defacing the song.
  308.  
  309. You told her she wasn't funny. She said she was offering honest critique and wasn't trying to be humorous. Then she doubled over on the table and almost spilled her cranberry juice from laughing.
  310.  
  311. “Can we leave this place? I'm going to remember it forever, I want to get a head start on that.” You the noted night crowd trickling out of the exit door like water droplets from a slowing faucet.
  312.  
  313. Erica sighed. “May as well. I've given everyone here all the surprises I can.”
  314.  
  315. “I hope they love 'em just as much as I loved mine.”
  316.  
  317. She bit her straw and grinned. “Oh, some might, some might not.” She stood up and patted your shoulder. “Alright, Starman, let's blow this popsicle stand.”
  318.  
  319. Erica made her long strides to the front door. You downed the last drop from the bottle, stood up and appreciated how much kick they put in the local stuff.
  320.  
  321. She waited outside, staring at the sky. You looked up at the sky blanketed behind the cut of buildings and night glow. “Bright tonight,” you observed. Erica nodded in silent agreement. “Do you like stars? Those things never change. Nope. They just burn and burn, burn. Moon, planets, stars, they're just up there,” you twirled your finger around, “spinning.”
  322.  
  323. “Not exactly.” Erica put one foot in front of the other and walked towards nowhere in particular. “Light travels...at...hm. A notch below seven hundred million miles per hour, right? The light from the nearest star” she recited from her mind's notebook, “asides from the sun takes, like, five years or some stupid long time to get here -and the time traveled just gets longer and longer for stars further away. Millions of years, billions, spent speeding across nothing just to twinkle in our air as long as our sun is shining on the other side of the Earth.”
  324.  
  325. “Point being?”
  326.  
  327. “My point is that the sky we're looking at right now may not be the right sky at all. We look up and all we're seeing is the past. Old light from old stars that may not even be there any more. That's leaving out stars that've popped into life. Imagine that? Bright, fresh star light could be on its way right now and we wouldn't even know it.”
  328.  
  329. She bumped you with her hips. “Sounds nice, doesn't it?” Her foot steps picked up a whimsical, floaty skip. “All that sky up there could look like anything right now.” She jaunted ahead and twirled towards you. “Never changing? C'mon. It's a big, big universe.” She fanned her arms out. “Everything changes.”
  330.  
  331. You took calm steps towards the girl in love with a sky no one could see. “Everything, huh? Suppose that a ma-” And that's when an arm wrapped around your neck, cutting your voice off.
  332.  
  333. “Try kicking, try screaming or shovin', swear to Christ, you're getting it,” said an unkind voice into your ear. “Alley, both of you, c'mon.” He jerked you back. You put up resistance, but a sharp elbow to the kidneys dissuaded you.
  334.  
  335. “Run,” you croaked to Erica. The man behind you pulled out a sharp thing that caught the moonlight on its tip.
  336.  
  337. “Say something again.” He held it close. “Lady, you take a fucking step, one fucking step away from me, then my grip's gonna slip all over his neck, yeh?”
  338.  
  339. Erica's lips thinned to a near invisible line and her eyes were very dark under her hood. She drew nearer. “That's right. Why you got so many damn coats on?” His arm tightened around your neck to get what little bit of your attention he didn't have.. “Your girl must look damn nasty.” He spat. “Pockets. Empty them, then get the fuck out of here.”
  340.  
  341. Erica stepped closer. “Close enough. Wallets, purses, if I don't see those arms moving I'll-” She took another step.
  342.  
  343. Your eyes darted between Erica and the knife in the man's hand. She stepped close again. “Fucking stay, are you deaf? Think this a damn joke?”
  344.  
  345. He swung. A bright, pointed piece of cruelty arced in the alley with a low whistle. Erica's own arm bolted through the air with the sound of a bird. Her fingers clamped his wrist. The man had just enough time to realize a bone may have broken when her shoulder pivoted back and flung you both to the ground.
  346.  
  347. His arm loosened around you, letting you breath again after a very real eternity. You rolled away over gravel and dirt and hustled to your feet. You grabbed Erica's arm as the man grunted and swore on the ground. “Go. We have to go, now,” you coughed. You urged her away, but her legs may as well been braced with steel girders.
  348.  
  349. He stood up. His features were ill-defined in that grimy pocket of the world, but he was in pain, and he was pissed. He didn't waste time with threats or insults, instead he raised his knife and dove for your friend.
  350.  
  351. You tried to push her out of the way. Pull her way. You tried to do something in that moment where everything had gone wrong and someone was bound to get hurt. Even now you're not sure what happened, but there was a grunt of surprise, and a rush of air and muscles.
  352.  
  353. When half a sense returned, you saw Erica holding the man by the throat against the brick wall. Beads of spittle and half-formed curses flew from his twisting lips.
  354.  
  355. “Erica?”
  356.  
  357. She said nothing. The man kicked at her, but he'd have better luck kicking a tank. The knife flopped in his hand for a panicked moment before he remembered its purpose. The blade rushed across Erica's forearm like a coping saw. Your stomach dropped.
  358.  
  359. In all fairness, it was a fine knife. The man put enough desperation and anger into that motion to cut through her sleeves in two swipes. The blade met the bare flesh of her arm on the third strike. There was no blood, or cries of injury. Only a burst of sparks as when steel strikes flint.
  360.  
  361. The man's eyes were lit in that fleeting light, and he looked afraid.
  362.  
  363. “Yer fuckin' kiddin',” he gurgled.
  364.  
  365. You couldn't see Erica's face. You didn't want to see her face considering what happened. She stepped back from the wall and lowered the man as if to drop a duffel bag.
  366.  
  367. Instead Erica tossed him into the air like a firecracker. It was so fast that you didn't even hear him scream. She looked to the sky and let her arm fall limp. You rushed to her side.
  368.  
  369. “The hell was that? Erica what the freaking hell was that?” You looked up. There wasn't any blip of a man flying through the air. You looked around, half-expecting him to fall back to Earth any moment. “Shit, shit.” Now you were going to freak out. “Shit.”
  370.  
  371. Erica lowered her head. “Are you okay?”
  372.  
  373. You swallowed and rubbed your sore throat. “I'm fine, don't worry about me. We have to get out of here. Jesus Christ, Erica, what did you do?”
  374.  
  375. “I sent him away.”
  376.  
  377. “Sent him where? Into fucking orbit? Is he going to land on Mars? He took your damn sleeve, even!” You motioned to her arm. The sleeve's elbow was ripped and threaded where his knife cut through the cloth. He must've been clutching to it when she chucked him to parts unknown. Her rash was exposed and looked severe, almost rippling.
  378.  
  379. “Don't worry about it, it's only...” She touched her forehead. “Only....oh boy.”
  380.  
  381. “Erica? What's wrong?”
  382.  
  383. “Think I over did it there,” She woozed. You supported her torso and steadied her by the shoulder.
  384.  
  385. “Out of here. We have to get somewhere safe, fast.” Back to the shop? You've been walking all day. It would take hours to return to that run-down upstairs haven. Your brain rushed.
  386.  
  387. “I don't....” she coughed. “My...head...is...” She twisted away from you and slammed against the brick wall. Her fingers thrashed at her hood. Erica groaned and you heard a gnashing of teeth. Her boots dug into the concrete, cracking and digging deep tracks into the ground.
  388.  
  389. Two points rose in between her splayed fingers. The bricks bounced with her echoing cries. A winding howl whipped from her mouth. The cloth of her hood split. Pale blue bone pierced from the top of her head. The left one emerged in a lazy curve, undulating like heated glass. The right sprouted in spurts and sharp twists, like watching a fast-forward clip of a growing tree.
  390.  
  391. The horns screeched like nails and broken glass dragging over polished metal. Your ears split.
  392.  
  393. Erica's fingers dug into the splits of her hood and tore the thing apart. Her chestnut hair sprung out and around the mismatching horns twisting from her skull. The weight of the things tipped her to the ground on her hands. The bizarre headdress creaked like sick, wet wood as it twisted outwards and upwards.
  394.  
  395. The growing slowed. Her head bobbed. She stopped screaming. Sweat dripped from her forehead.
  396.  
  397. It was to your credit that you didn't gawk like an idiot for ten minutes, mouth opened so wide your chin hit the ground. “Erica.” You put a tentative hand on her shoulder. Her breath quivered and her body shook. She was freezing. “Dammit. Can you stand up? I'll help. Come on, come on, please.” You placed a hand on her back and set her arm behind your neck and lifted. The effort made her grunt.
  398.  
  399. She wobbled and would've fell forward without your support. The horns threw off her center of gravity, you felt it. Twisting, intersecting shadows fell across the concrete.
  400.  
  401. “I sent him -I sent him...”
  402.  
  403. “It's alright. He's gone now. I saw what you did,” you looked up and down the alley to make sure no one else witnessed what she did. For all the world you wish you didn't.
  404.  
  405. “He was trying to-”
  406.  
  407. “I know. Just catch your breath okay, I”ll get us to a...” you thought of your options.
  408.  
  409. “No hospitals,” she croaked.
  410.  
  411. You patted her back. “Sure, sure, no hospitals.” Even if you did lead her to one, what would you say? 'Hello, my friend here threw a man to Pluto and some horns popped out of her head like weeds. I heard they made a pill for that.'
  412.  
  413. You would've laughed if you weren't at a total loss.
  414.  
  415. “We were having a good time, too,” she muttered in a slurred, saddened way.
  416.  
  417. “One step at a time, c'mon.”
  418.  
  419. You led her out of the alley. Trying to get back to the shop was the only sensible option, so you headed in what you hoped was the correct direction.
  420.  
  421. With each yard your heart thumped harder. It was dark, it was cold, and Erica felt colder. A few stray couples still stalked the sidewalks.
  422.  
  423. “Holy crap, what's on her head?” went a lady.
  424.  
  425. “Uh. Halloween costume. She had a little too much fun at the party.” You made a drinky-drinky motion.
  426.  
  427. “But it's April.”
  428.  
  429. “Crazy, crazy Halloween party, hoo!” you shouted and hastened past as fast as you could. You wanted to throw up all over the sidewalk.
  430.  
  431. You considered calling for a taxi, but there was no way in hell her horns would fit in the backseat. You paused at a crosswalk to think of a feasible plan of action. Erica slumped against you. A pair of headlights were coming down the road. Her chest rose and fell against your arm. The sloping horns hummed like a dying radio signal.
  432.  
  433. The stoplight flashed from green to red, yellow, and blue to purple. The flash of car lamps cruising together from separate angles never had a dredge of hope. Hearing a car crash on tv couldn't compare to hearing it happen less than ten feet away from you.
  434.  
  435. You ducked, trying to pull Erica with you, but she stood firm. Metal careened into high speed metal. Glass exploded on the street corner and split the rays of the streetlights into glistening fractals that showered the concrete like flesh-shredding confetti. Tonnage of steel made fiery streaks as it scraped over the asphalt. Mechanical parts twisted and crunched into a near-parody of sculpture.
  436.  
  437. Erica reached out and touched the tip of a bolt that flew overhead. Pieces of glass and metal glowed around her form.
  438.  
  439. “Pretty,” she said. You don't know how you heard that over the shouts, popping airbags, and broken horns that would not stop blaring, but you did. The radio siren from her horns rose and fell.
  440.  
  441. You grabbed her relaxed shoulders, and looked at something you never wanted to see. “Now. We have to get out of here now.”
  442.  
  443. She resisted your urgings like a child watching a parade. “Erica,” you repeated with desperate severity. Her expression was sublime. Her eyes shut and she collapsed.
  444.  
  445. “Dammit,” you said, catching her weight before she bumped her head. She recovered enough to move her legs as you huffed across the road strewn with car parts and pieces you didn't want to think about.
  446.  
  447. “What was that?” she asked.
  448.  
  449. “You tell me.”
  450.  
  451. “I didn't...mean too...”
  452.  
  453. You made it two blocks before the sound of ambulances wailed in the air.
  454.  
  455. “I'm itchy,” Erica told you.
  456.  
  457. “It's going to be okay.” you said while putting one foot in front of the other. Her free hand scratched at her neck and stomach.
  458.  
  459. “It won't go away.” Windows on either side of the street winked with lights. Up and down the blocks, street lamps, stop lights, and porches blinked like Morse code. Glass popped and dusted the sidewalk, making you curse in surprise.
  460.  
  461. Cars sped past you and screeched to a halt as their engines blew, tires popped, or spun after hitting some invisible pole in the road. No matter if you took a left or right at road forks, rampant disruption followed. Erica shivered so much that you feared she'd slip from your fingers.
  462.  
  463. Wild gusts blew up and down the roads.
  464.  
  465. You couldn't take her anywhere in this state. Even if you made it back to the parlor, there'd be a trail of car crashes and shattered glass that would lead anyone straight to you and her. “Erica,” you pleaded, “whatever you're doing, you have to control it.”
  466.  
  467. “'M trying,” she wept. “Honest, I am.”
  468.  
  469. Her horns folded the blinking lights around them as if carved from an unnatural ivory. You wanted to break into a hardware store and clear through them with a chainsaw.
  470.  
  471. Somewhere a generator blew.
  472.  
  473. “A door. Take me to a door.”
  474.  
  475. “What? A door?”
  476.  
  477. Her head shot up and her eyes were yellowed, like a jaundice sufferer. “Any door, it's not fucking complicated,” she strained.
  478.  
  479. You looked amongst the buildings and light bulbs undergoing seizures. You picked an innocuous wooden door that led to some shop that you didn't care about and couldn't get to fast enough.
  480.  
  481. Once within reach, Erica lurched from your arms and slammed against the wooden frame. The fingers from her ripped sleeve spread across the frame and searched for the handle. You fought a lump in your throat when you saw the extent of her rash. Mottled, yellowed skin spread across her formerly smooth fingers. The nails were blackened and slick. Her infected hand clawed the doorknob.
  482.  
  483. She looked fevered. The twisting horns clacked and dragged against the wood, leaving scratch marks. The door was locked. She banged her open palm against the door without rhyme or delicacy. Bang. Bang. Bang. The lights around the street flashed in kind.
  484.  
  485. She grabbed your arm, wrapped her free hand around the knob, and pushed.
  486.  
  487. You fell past the threshold and hit the dirty wooden floor of Sanderson's upstairs room. The nocturnal wails were cut like a throat.
  488.  
  489. There was nothing behind you but an empty closet. Erica laid next to you, racked with heavy breaths and hands trying to find something to grab onto. Her hair looked a mess. She rolled onto her back, grunting as her horns clacked on the floor and forced her neck into a pained angle.
  490.  
  491. She held an arm out, which you took and pulled her up. Her eyes were shut tight. She swept to the wall and sidled down the way like a blind woman. She reached the bathroom door.
  492.  
  493. She clenched her teeth and slammed the door three times. Bang. Bang. Bang.
  494.  
  495. A light appeared under the door's lip. She exhaled as if recovering from a punch in the stomach and yanked the door open. Inside you saw a clean, well-lit and functional bathroom. Erica fumbled inside and shut the door. You saw a slip of her eyes. They were yellow, reddened from tears, and curdled with fear and anger. Coupled with her sharp, blue horns you couldn't help but step back.
  496.  
  497. Words couldn't come. Only a thin slip of light on the floor offered you company. You pressed your ear against the door and heard the sound of running water. The motion and thumps of legs led you to believe that Erica got the faucet running again and stepped into the shower.
  498.  
  499. “What the hell,” you said under your breath. You ran to the window to see if Erica's disrupting effect seeped into the surrounding neighborhood. Nowhere else did the lights flash or cars collide. Sirens weren't heard in this part of town. You were safe, it seemed.
  500.  
  501. You glanced at the shut bathroom door and wondered if that were true. You fell back on the mattress, covered your eyes and prayed and waited for your heart to calm down.
  502.  
  503. “What the hell,” you repeated. “What the hell,” a third time, for good measure. You hoped Erica wouldn't take long in that restroom, or that it wouldn't disappear like an enchanted carriage after she left, because you felt a powerful urge to cough up every organ in your body.
  504.  
  505. But time passed and you only felt that urge grow stronger. One hour. Two hours, maybe three? You heard nothing behind that door but the sound of spraying water. You crept to the door and listened for other movement.
  506.  
  507. Nothing.
  508.  
  509. You knocked. “Erica?” Silence. “Talk to me.” More silence. “I know what happened out there was -okay, I have no idea what the fuck any of that was, but you need to talk to me.”
  510.  
  511. The water didn't even ripple. Did she pass out? Maybe slipped and hit her head on the tub rim? Or something worse? Would she throw you through a wall if you barged in on her naked? The doorknob grew warm in your hand.
  512.  
  513. You turned the knob. The door was unlocked. You opened it and coughed at the thick stream rushing outwards.
  514.  
  515. The shower curtains were drawn back and water had drizzled all over the tub ring and floor. Erica sat on her knees under the cascading water. She didn't move in notice of your presence. Every bit of clothing she had entering the room clung to her body, dark and heavy with water.
  516.  
  517. “Christ,” you said. “Erica, look at me.” Hair covered her face. You snapped your fingers to no reaction. You had to accept things weren't going to get better soon. The water scalded your hand when you reached for her. She was bound to get blisters and hypothermia if she sat under the water like this.
  518.  
  519. You were quick to shut off the knobs and lifted her head. Her hair was dry beneath your hands. She blinked in dim recognition as you checked her discolored sclera.
  520.  
  521. “Come on,” you said gently and hooked a hand under her arm. She moved by near unconscious rote when you lifted her from the tub. The hot water seeped between your fingers and ran down to your elbows where you touched her clothing. “That's enough shower for now,” you tried to sound calm, and succeeded a little.
  522.  
  523. You led her out of the bathroom which didn't disappear or turn back into a septic mess upon leaving. Water dripped and pooled where she stepped. You sat her down on the mattress. Erica's unfocused gaze unnerved you. She stared out the window, past the glass, past the street, the city, the sky, the stars and into a deep oblivion.
  524.  
  525. “Those clothes need to come off. Or you'll get sick,” you said. You didn't think wet jackets would harm her much alone, but piled on with every other mishap tonight, you'd prefer not to run the risk. “Help me out here, okay?”
  526.  
  527. She didn't resist as you slid her many sopping layers from her arms and down her shoulders. You piled them on the floor where a little water damage wasn't going to ruin things further. The necks of her sweaters couldn't stretch over her horns. Those had to be ripped off and you felt dirty and shameful for it. Her red tank top was just dry enough, thank God.
  528.  
  529. There were two bulges along her back that weren't present the night before. Settled between her shoulder blades were two elongated swellings that quivered when you touched them. Erica said nothing, so you left well enough alone, deciding to focus on the task at hand, which you could at least accomplish.
  530.  
  531. You knelt down and undid the laces on her boots, which were looped and knotted into tens of unintelligible knots so frustrating they bordered on the Escher-like.
  532.  
  533. After several minutes of yanking, you slipped the boots from her feet and unrolled a half dozen layer of wool socks and thermals until her slim toes laid unmoving against the floor.
  534.  
  535. You paused at her leggings and looked at her. “I really don't want to take your pants off unless you say something,” you muttered in a tired voice.
  536.  
  537. Her head tilted towards you. She blinked once.
  538.  
  539. “Once for yes, twice for no?”
  540.  
  541. She blinked once.
  542.  
  543. “Fine.” You undid her belts and buttons and zippers and more buttons. Jeans, shorts, sweat pants, jammies, more jeans, and tights slid down her legs. You gathered up the pile, walked to the far corner of the room, and dumped them on the ground.
  544.  
  545. You paused by the window and ran a hand down your face before turning towards Erica.
  546.  
  547. She wasn't even wet. Her skin was clean and dry. Her torso bobbed in a calm breathing rhythm. Long, coppery legs stretched off the mattress and sloped to the ground. Your eyes drifted up and caught the terminus of her waist and thighs. The generous mass of her red-tinted hair hung across her shoulders, drifting by wisps as bits of wind blew in from the open window.
  548.  
  549. Then there were her horns. Both spiraling and spiky. Deer-like, maybe, but from two far ends of the family tree. Blue as to be almost white, like blueberries soaked in milk. Ridges and sharp points captured the air like a leafless tree branches in winter. The alien protrusions would be fine sculpture work if located anywhere else besides her skull. Her yellowed, scaled arm laid unmoving on the sheets, but her curving black nails could tear streaks through them should they flex.
  550.  
  551. “You gotta help me here, girl. What's going on with you?”
  552.  
  553. Some light came back to her eyes. Her head moved in slow consideration of her antlers.
  554.  
  555. “Surprise me,” she uttered with a glacier's deliberation.
  556.  
  557. “What?”
  558.  
  559. “Surprise me,” she repeated. “Cuss, kiss me, eat your shoe, anything,” she tolled. “Just surprise me.”
  560.  
  561. “Surprise you.”
  562.  
  563. She nodded once. The sharp points of her horns tilted. You were half afraid she'd fall forward again.
  564.  
  565. You bit your lip and considered your shoes. She wanted a surprise after a night full of surprises. What could you offer? You put your hands in both pockets and walked in slow, ponderous steps to the bed and sat next to her.
  566.  
  567. A phone was pulled from your pocket. It was a miracle that the thing still had a battery charge. Erica looked down at the blank screen, lips sealed.
  568.  
  569. “Here.” The phone flicked to life. “I lied the other night. I never tried to hide my dirty pictures that well.” Your thumb pressed through a small maze of menus and sub-folders. “They were distractions. Worked pretty good, huh?” You couldn't help smiling a little. “No, no...these, uh...it's these pictures right here that I don't want strangers looking through.”
  570.  
  571. You opened an album nestled deep inside the memory card. The first photograph spread across the screen.
  572.  
  573. “This is a picture of all of us -me, my mom, my brother, and sisters,” you said slowly. You pointed to your mother. “Her name's Allison.” You pointed at the boy. “That's Richard.” You pointed to the two girls one at a time. “Margaret and Madeline. Twins.” Erica closed some of the space between you. “And that's me, of course.”
  574.  
  575. You swiped to the next picture, one of Maggie and Maddie at a cellist recital. The quality was a little blurry on the edges, but you could plainly see their faces drawn in concentrated serenity. “Musicians. Good ones, too. They both got scholarships. I never could figure out how to read music sheets. I always thought that was pretty cool of them.”
  576.  
  577. The next picture. “Richie. Younger than me. Real smart. Scored straight A's in his math classes and took a lot of college credits before graduating. He had his engineering major all lined up.”
  578.  
  579. Another group photo, this time at a Christmas party. You looked a little younger than you did now. “My Mom.” You took a bracing breath, feeling like rolling a boulder uphill. “She was...there for us. For as much as she could be. It was hard for her, and she never got enough sleep, but she was great. Got us to school on time and took us on at least one vacation a year, even if we had to sleep in the car overnight at a trucker's stop.” You laughed. “If you -if you think this night was crazy, you should've seen those sleepovers. Christ, they were madhouses.”
  580.  
  581. You covered your mouth, and took a deep, slow breath through your nose. “But, this, uh. This Christmas pic was the last big moment we all had a really good time together. Maggie and Maddy...” Wetness blurred your vision. “There was an accident two months later, you see. Both of them,” you muttered, “but it was fast. Doctors told us they didn't feel anything, but we made up for it. Mom died a year later in her sleep. She was sick at the time, but she drove herself to sickness.”
  582.  
  583. The phone trembled in your hand. “A year after that I woke up and found a note from Richie on the kitchen table, and that was the last I heard from him. That was two years ago. He may be out there, or maybe not. The words weren't encouraging. We never could find him, and we looked everywhere.”
  584.  
  585. You snickered and wiped your thumb across your nose.
  586.  
  587. “One time, me and Richie pulled a twofer and drank half a bottle of mom's scotch and smoked her last pack of cigarettes while she was at work. I can't remember who dared who first, but we didn't need much egging on after it started. I swear to God, Mom beat our asses darker than a bowl of blackberries then made us thank her for it. Haven't smoked since then -my fingers lock up before I can wrap 'em around a cigarette.”
  588.  
  589. “Maggie and Maddie. They acted like coked up little hellions, running, screaming and over-reacting because they were dramatists at heart, and had the most awful taste in books and tv shows you've ever seen, and you better believe we've waged major throw downs over remote control rights if Mom didn't come up and yank the leashes she held over us all.”
  590.  
  591. Your thumb moved idly along the screen's edge.
  592.  
  593. “Even for all that, they were the smart ones, and talented. They'd scribble notes over lined paper then close their eyes and make music from nothing, like magic. Richie could take a car apart top to bottom, put it back together and make it purr like an overgrown kitten. They'd win awards and get pictures put in the paper. We'd still cuss and hit each other as kids, but if there was a pack of candy we'd share it, pile up in the back room if the power went out in a thunderstorm. Then Mom would light up the candles and bring out a little pup tent and pretend we were camping.”
  594.  
  595. You put the phone in the gasp of space between you and Erica and put your hands together. She picked it up and traced a black nail over their faces. “I always considered myself the middlin' average one. I pulled my weight around, did what I was supposed to, but I knew that my brother and sisters would shine brighter than me. I was okay with that.”
  596.  
  597. Your jaw tightened and the muscles hurt.
  598.  
  599. “You want me to surprise you? Imagine my surprise when it turned out that out of all of them, with all their talents and smarts and whole lives waiting, I was the one left standing and nobody else could tell me why. Look me in the eye and tell me that makes sense. You like surprises -I don't. I'm sick of surprises. Sick of them.”
  600.  
  601. You lowered your voice and let your heart settle. “I woke up a few days ago and looked around my room and nothing about life made any kind of damn sense to me, so I put a clean pair of underwear and socks in a backpack, bought a ticket, hopped on a bus and then I ran into you, and now things make even less sense.”
  602.  
  603. Erica's nail clacked the screen into darkness. “I was riding those buses for a while,” she rasped.
  604.  
  605. You turned towards her and ignored the little stream on your cheek.
  606.  
  607. “Trains, too. Cabs. Subway cars. I swerved and zig-zagged all over roads and maps. I can't remember where I started, but I remember staring out of windows and watching the sun go up and down over and over. I ate if I felt like it. Walked, if I wanted to stretch my legs. Made little, out of the way changes if the need came up. But I kept moving.”
  608.  
  609. “Nobody bothered me,” she continued. Her eyes widened and were reflective of the shadows and meek pebbles of light coming through the window. “As long as I had my ticket or enough change to pay the fare, nobody said a word. Maybe a few odd looks, and a handful of cat-calls, but I was too busy thinking.”
  610.  
  611. She raised her head, a head adorned with foreign, frightful bones and the softest hair you've ever seen. “So imagine my surprise when you spoke to me,”
  612.  
  613. Her hand drifted over your neck and cupped your cheek. The darkness in the room felt comforting. Her jaundiced eyes were soft. The touch of her hand was warm again.
  614.  
  615. “You're not well,” you said, as if trying to convince yourself.
  616.  
  617. “No.” Erica shook her head. “I'm just looking for the right frame of mind.”
  618.  
  619. You kissed her once. Her brown lips fitted against your own, so smooth and warm they almost melted into each other. There was no great pressure, only a gentle meeting of tender nerve tips and parts accustomed to forming words were used to form comfort and silence.
  620.  
  621. The world lingered in quiet after drawing away from her.
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