Warning: this epic, though not necessarily this chapter, contains scenes involving
Thanks to Kenovay for betaing. If you find any misspellings in Greek: they're hers. The rest are mine.
Hope you enjoy :-)Morgenfryd
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The Tail of the Tiger, Chapter 23
Listless in a Cage
Rolling up to the checkpoint I could see William inside the booth. He gave one of his curt nods in response to my wave. Watching for the group of kids that often played in the wider roads around the booth, I slowly drove into the manicured Reserve. The roads were clean and the front lawns were tended with the care befitting a golf course; coming home was like moving indoors in two tempi.
I miss ankle high grass with dandelions and thistles. Which was somewhat of a surprise, since I usually don't care for gardens unless they're herb gardens.
And, oh, nettles! The cheese! Jesus, I almost forgot. Nettles - where do I find nettles here? Quick, the List.
I stopped and got my list out, finding a clear spot I wrote, "smoke cheese, nettles?". I had to be meticulous about everything; maybe I shouldn't even be driving.
Carefully checking the mirrors, I started the car again. A small, slim man was coming up the road towards me. He had Asian features, and his thinning, cropped hair was graying at his temples. The strong glasses that he wore, his choice of clothes, and the way he moved all came together and made me guess "professor". It wasn't anybody that I had seen before.
As I drove past him I noticed that the clothes were perhaps a little too worn and sweat stained for the usual run of the mill professor of the Reserve. But I couldn't be sure since I didn't know of any resident professors. I couldn't imagine what kind of staff he was - if he was staff.
Well, he could be an anthropologist out making observations of the population of the Reserve. It seemed unlikely, though. One would have expected such a one to drive a car in order to blend in.
If he had been somebody's guest then the host obviously had let him leave without a cleaning: his hair was sweaty, and there was dust on his shoes. He's probably thirsty, and hungry too. I felt a small pang of regret as I passed him; impulsively, I stopped the car.
"Hey?" I called out of the window. He ignored me and walked on. "Are you okay?" got no reaction either so I let him be. He was still on my mind when I rolled into the drive at Mormor's place.
Nina was having a drink on the bench outside the backdoor. Her bag was next to her and she had gotten rid of the apron; she was ready to go home.
"Did you see a small Asian guy around here?" I asked her when I sat down on the edge of the porch.
"No." She frowned. "Rita saw one yesterday or maybe it was the day before.... Well, she said she saw a Chinese guy."
"Small guy wearing strong glasses and worn clothes?"
Nina shrugged. "Do you want me to ask her what he looked like?"
"Nah - it was just an odd fellow I saw."
"If it's the same guy, then he may have been peeing in the bushes by the road." Nina made a vague gesture, indicating which bushes. "But Rita wasn't sure that he was actually doing it so she didn't say anything to any of you. Why?"
"I was just curious; the guy I saw did not fit in. We'll hear about it if anything is amiss."
Her eyes crinkled. "Well, if he walks around peeing on people's bushes, then I'm sure we will." She emptied the can and got up to leave. "I'm off unless there's something that really, really cannot wait until tomorrow?"
I shook my head, and we said goodbye.
As she backed the car out of the drive, she turned in her seat; something about the way she moved tricked a memory, and I saw Chris looking broader than he was, happily grinning while handling Miguel's old truck with sure hands. The short film left me with an empty silence inside.
I took a deep breath. Okay. Where was I? I got out the rumpled papers from my pocket, and found the Main List that got me through those weird resets of my memory. At least I can remember that there is a List. Tut tut - there. Ah. Things to get from Jennifer's place - I have to unload. Memory jutted onto the right track, I went to empty the van.
Mormor wanted her birthday celebrated in the garden. I had been on a raid to Jennifer and Frank's house to pick up equipment for the party.
I studied the list some more. Something had happened while I was at the house but I had forgotten what it was. Well, if it was really important, then I'd have made a note. I'll remember later. If not before, then when it's too late.
Jennifer came out as I was piling things onto the porch. "Did you get everything?" She asked.
"I don't know," I said, being quite honest, and got out the list that she had given me. Maybe what was nagging at my defective memory had to do with things that I couldn't find for her. After checking but getting no ideas from the list, I handed it to her. She frowned at it; then she stuffed it in her pocket and started carrying her stuff inside.
It was good to be back home again. The house of Tom's parents had become a very spooky place; it was perfectly understandable that Jennifer felt no inclination to go back there.
The people who had been hired to do the cleaning and fixing were unlikely to dispel the spook. Maybe a Frank out of hospital, miraculously healed and reinstalled in the house, could do it. Which was not going to happen any time soon: Jennifer hadn't been allowed to see him in the three days that had passed since she had signed him off to treatment.
I was stowing drinks away in the garage and thinking about how to keep them cooled for the birthday party. An idea was just about to pop when my mind turned over, and it was naked Chris falling backwards, laughing, arms and legs spread wide, disappearing in a mighty splash of water. Of course I instantly forgot the newfound solution to the cooling problem. Bugger. I know I had it.
Drinking one of the not quite cool sodas, I took a break while coaching my idea back out in the open. When I had it, I hurried writing it down with very small letters on the List - I was running out of space.
I have to rewrite the List. But now - the chairs and the sunshades.
Lisa and Maria were sitting on the lawn in the dogs' enclosure, talking quietly while brushing the pugs. The pampered dogs were lounging in sinful comfort and odd poses.
Lisa saw me and waved. "Hi, Mikkel."
Maria turned and smiled; around them the lazing dogs came alive, and rushed to say hello to me.
"Hi. Please, give me a hand here, girls. Open the gate and be careful to keep the dogs inside."
They did, and I could put my load down on the porch. "So you two met." I stated the obvious while patting the pugs. It was good to se Lisa: Maria needed friends around - especially ebullient and irrepressible ones like Lisa. Mormor had asked Maria to invite a friend or two over for the birthday party; maybe Lisa would come.
"Yeah. I saw her yesterday and the day before and, I mean - a new girl next door! I just had to meet her. And it's Maria! Ian's already told me lots about her."
Maria smiled bashfully at that.
Lisa's mother had probably just lost another struggle with Lisa's instinctive drive to socialize. I smiled. "Good! Have you girls had anything for lunch?"
They shook their heads.
I really should give those mothers and the grandmother a talking to. "I'll fix some, then."
"Mikkel." Maria hesitated. "Mum and Granny are in the kitchen."
"Ah. Okay." It was some kind of code that she was sending me. Unsure what it was but sure that I was about to find out, I headed inside thinking about lunch and running right into Chris talking with his mouth full of food, a smear of ketchup on his cheek. Eyes alive and smiling.
I must have entered a shoal of memories.
I forgot what I had headed out to do, but angry voices in the kitchen pulled me in the right direction.
"- not meddle with my guest list! Paul is a good friend of mine, he's a good kid and I like him." Mormor was talking really fast.
Oh, no. They're at it again. The evening before, I had had to flee the library to set my shop up in the dogs' den to get the quiet I needed to get into my work. It was difficult enough to concentrate without them going on. Jennifer and Maria were using my room, and I had moved in with Tom.
"Very well, then we won't be here." Jennifer's voice broke on "we".
"You can do what you please! But remember - if you lock up that girl again, then I'm going to set a horde of case workers on your throat."
"I didn't lock her up! How many times do I have to-"
"What else will you call what you did? Protective custody? What's the difference? None!"
The last thing Maria and Tom needed was to be totally isolated from each other again. I weighed that against my selfish wish to have Jennifer away and gone. "My, my. Are we having fun."
"You stay out of this, Mikkel."
"I'd be glad to. As long as you two dragons get out of my kitchen." I had forgotten what I was going to do there, but I was sure that this was where I had to be. I'll just check the List. When I've finished the swiping.
"Your kitchen!" Mormor was ready to pick a fight with anybody. "This is my house!"
"I know, I only work here. Now, get out, both of you. And keep it down, please."
Oh, the groceries. I forgot them in the van.
"I pick a fight where I want and when I want. It's none of your business." Mormor glared at me as I crossed the room to get to the back door.
Fed up with it all, I turned to face them. "Yes, you can pick what fight you want. And yesss - it gets to be my business when one of my younger cousins is hiding and hurting in the garden because you two supposedly adult persons are fighting. Again. Give the rest of us some time off. You two are insufferable!"
That, of course, made both of them angry with me - I was the youngest, and male, and entirely out of line. If they can find a common enemy, they might discover that they have something in common. To make sure that they stayed angry with me for long enough to set up a united front, I left without listening to what comeback they might have had.
Don't question the logic. What was I about - oh, the groceries. Amazingly, I managed to get the groceries into the kitchen without losing my way inside my head.
There was no united front waiting for me when I got back - the two dragons had both left the battleground.
Using several magnets I secured the List to the fridge before I unpacked the groceries. When looking for room for the décor for drinks, Mormor wanted neon colored straws and paper umbrellas, I found the parcel that had come by mail the day before. "Secret!" it said in letters written in a scrawl with a red marker on brown paper. The same marker had been used several flying stick pugs. The stick pugs poked and banged against the walls of my heart; yet, I couldn't help looking at them. Chris!
Since it said "secret", he wanted Mormor to wait for her birthday proper before opening it. There was only one way for that to happen without the rest of us going nuts from her antics: keeping her in the dark about the arrival of the parcel. Hence the hiding spot in a cupboard where she usually didn't care to look. Afraid I might forget about the gift, and sensing that now was a good time to move contraband, I picked it up. As I rose from kneeling position, my sight swam a little.
What's wrong with me? I should have been hungry or sleepy, not dizzy. It's probably the same thing. Everything is out of whack. I sneaked off to Tom's room and stowed Chris' present on the top shelf in the high closet with the rest of the birthday presents.
Now, what was it I was about to do? I checked the List on the fridge door. The cheese - there might not be time enough for it to get ready for smoking. Still, I heated the milk to lukewarm, added the rennet, and left it in a bowl on top of the fridge to sour. What else? Cracklings and flower decorations? With a nagging feeling that it wasn't quite it, I got the fat out on the counter.
Chris probably really likes cracklings-
Chris on his knees on the counter, sorting through the bags of chips and snacks in the cupboard, pulling out everything to make sure he misses nothing.
Maria and Lisa came into the kitchen. "What are you making?" Maria asked wrinkling her nose at the leaf fat.
"For lunch?" Lisa asked doubtfully while Maria asked "What's cracklings?"
Lunch? Oh, I promised them, didn't I? "No, the cracklings are for the Danish version of chitterlings that I'm making for tomorrow. Let's see...." I opened the fridge, and pulled out food items.
"But what is it?" asked Maria. "And what's chitterlings?"
"Cracklings are crunchy things made of fat; chitterlings are very mushy, and they are made of a lot of things - liver, meat, kidney, prunes, apples, a few things more, and the cracklings. It's an old-fashioned thing, really. Here. You rinse these." I piled greens onto the counter next to the sink.
I turned the oven, on and found lunch buns in the freezer. There were only five buns left. The list! Quick! Buns. And white bread for tomorrow. I wrote the reminders down. Inspired, I crossed out the chores that I was sure already had been done. "Did Mormor and Jennifer eat, do you know?"
"Don't think so. Do we have to eat with my mum?"
"No." Now, what is this? More quarrels? "Tell you what, I'll make you each a good bun with all the trimmings you care for, and wrap it up in paper like a burger. We can wrap some cake too. You can sit and eat it where you want, maybe go to the park like on a mini-picnic."
"We can?" Maria looked at me, wanting some sort of confirmation, I was not sure of what.
"Let's do that." Lisa smiled, bubbling with possibilities. "We can bring my beach blanket and boom box. Let's go to the lake!"
"What's a boom box?"
"Yeah? Yeah!" Maria apparently had gotten the confirmation she had wanted. "Great." She sounded so happy that I didn't want to spoil it by grilling her about what was up with her mother.
"Hello. Requesting language lesson here. Boom box?"
They grinned and explained it to me. Then they sped up the rinsing, spraying more water on their surroundings than on the greens, talking about the music they would stuff into said boom box. "Yes, that one and the one I got with NSync; did you hear-"
A pixie with a pineapple on his head, cockily defying the laws of gravity, singing and dancing in flickering, magic lights.
"Now, don't be a nuisance with that boom box thing; there are other people in the park besides you two," I told them when they were heading out. "And don't leave your garbage laying around, bring it with you back if there are no places to put it." I couldn't think of more admonitions. I probably should make a list of those too. And a list of lists.
"Okay, Mikkel. See you. And thanks." For some reason Maria came back to give me a hug before she and Lisa ran off with the cooler between them.
I filled the last buns, and went looking for Mormor and Jennifer. Mormor was in the Library, working on a spreadsheet. She grunted when I put the plate down next to her. I left to find Jennifer.
Jennifer was sitting in the sofa on the back porch, crying silently. I found a clean tea towel in the laundry room and wrung it with cool water before I offered it to her; snot in your food is really disgusting. "Here. Clean your face a bit."
She sniffled and took the tea towel. While she went about the cleaning I left to pick up my own food and something to drink. "You should eat some," I told her when I was back.
"I'm not hungry." She sighed.
Neither was I; the pain in my stomach was telling something else. "Still." The bun looked enormous. I took a bite. "Once you take a bite it gets easier." I eyed the bun in my hand. My belly was growling but my throat had shrunk and wouldn't let anything past. "It's supposed to. Try it."
She did. She chewed and sank, sank and chewed, until finally she had swallowed the last of the small mouthful. "What do you want?"
"I'm a member of this household - I have some interest in what is going on here."
She sighed. We were quiet, both busy fighting with a nibble of our respective buns.
"My children hate me."
"Yes? How do you know that?"
"Maria told me. She said - she said it."
"Maria telling you that she hates you is not the same as your children hating you."
She was quiet while we chewed our ways through another nibble of bun. "Maybe not." Two minutes or so later it was: "My mother hates me."
"Are you serious or are you just whining?"
She didn't answer, which in my ears was the same as confirming the second possibility. "You hate me too," she said.
I could suddenly understand why Mormor ended up yelling at Jennifer. Perhaps, to Jennifer, being yelled at would be enough reason to see herself as a victim, and justifying the self-inflicted state of virtual lobotomy she seemed to be constantly in search for. I was getting more and more convinced that her insistence on unreason was powered by some weird principle rather than by lack in ability. Stress will do that to some people too. But - heavens! It's frustrating to be the butt of that kind of manipulation.
"Just because I hate to be told what I feel by people who doesn't care enough to ask, doesn't mean that I hate them." I took a drink, hoping to clear my throat for another bite. "You are merely irritating." Elegantly brutal much, Mikkel?
She chewed and stared at me before returning her attention to the bun. "So are you. Irritating, I mean. Are you always so rational?"
"No. Are you always so emotional?"
Maybe there was no common ground for us to meet on and talk. Maybe she didn't want one. I'm tired of reaching out and trying to figure out what's up with other people. Fuck you, Chris.
Chris soaking wet, spraying droplets that glittered in the sun when he came at me in a running attack, waving a plastic water-bazooka, mouth wide open in his stunning War Wail.
At least he left me rich with memories and a thousand ways of saying... that. Some day it'll be enough. Not yet, but some day.
I became aware that Jennifer was talking.
"-because I wouldn't let her in. When Frank. I wouldn't let her stay with me. I told her to go to her own room. She didn't need to see - I mean, if Frank came upstairs, I didn't want her to see. And maybe get trapped and hurt. I wanted her to run if Frank came upstairs."
What, what? Oh. Hate. Maria. "And what did she say when you told her that?"
"Tell her that her father was going to kill her mom? I didn't. Of course I didn't!"
I chewed my way through another bite, trying to focus on what she had told me. "What if she believes that Frank was going to kill you both? Your refusal to let her into the bedroom suddenly looks rather weird, then."
Jennifer looked like she was about to throw up. "She told you that?" came out brokenly.
"No, no. But. Like, we all, Maria too, think it's obvious that she was scared that night, and we leave it at that. Perhaps the "Why" really shouldn't be left to rot unquestioned."
Her defenses went up with a swisch. "Are you telling me how I should talk to my own daughter?"
"Suggesting. Just suggesting. It wasn't as much about talking to, but more about talking with and listening."
Another silence while we both chewed. Jennifer gave up and left the rest of her food on the table. "Do you know what she's up to right now?"
"She's in the park on a mini-picnic with Lisa."
"Unsupervised? In the park? Maria?"
"She needs supervision to unpack a blanket and a cooler?"
Jennifer didn't answer but got up and hurried off.
I looked down and met Violet's gaze. Her darkeyed stare was overlaid by - soft brown eyes blinked, lashes lighly touched pale skin, the edges of the eyes crinkled, and the mouth moved not quite enough to actually widen - a mere ripple on the surface, telling of something nice happening deep down.
Violet snorted, and wagged her tail expectantly. I picked her up; settling back in the sofa I made both of us comfortable - some pug-therapy was entirely in order. I should clean up the List. But, really, a softly snorting pug was just what I wanted right then.
Mormor woke me up when she wheeled out on the porch. "Mikkel."
"You were asleep?"
"Just. Yes. I was. What do you want?" I yawned and tried to recapture Dream-Chris, but he slipped away.
"Where's my useless daughter?"
"If she's useless then that's a pretty useless piece of information, isn't it? Go find her yourself. I'm useless. Heck, we're all fucking useless."
Mormor pursed her lips. "What's gotten into you?"
"Let's just say it's limited surplus. Do you want anything?"
"Yes. I want to know what is going on with you. You put sweet mustard in my sandwich."
"Sorry?" She frowned at me. "Did you just say sorry?"
"Yes. It wasn't on purpose-"
"Not on purpose! Really? What has happened to you?"
"Chris and I are over. Don't ask."
"Oh.... I see. Okay. Okay. Right. I see. Ah. Does that mean that you don't want to know about Justin's call?"
"Justin? He called?"
"Yes. He left his number for you." She handed me the wireless phone and a piece of paper.
I studied the number. The useless piece of information would likely stick to my memory, taking up room for more important stuff. "He's probably just meddling; Chris will flay him."
"He said it was important. Where is Jennifer?"
"In the park. Supervising Maria and Lisa on the finer points of unpacking a cooler containing sex small items."
"Useless!" Mormor snorted and turned around, disappearing inside. "The Witches are picking me up. Beth found a place that she wants us to look at. You can come if you want."
"Okay. Thanks. I don't want." I fiddled with the paper. I should throw it away. Or eat it. Certainly forget it. I should go make cracklings, chitterlings and flower decorations. And - what was that other thing? I never got to say good bye to Justin. Or to Joey, Lance or JC. Bash Chris with a rolling pin!
Rolling pin - bread. That was it. And buns. Oh - and smoked cheese.
Never mind the integrity of Justin's hide: I dialed his number. If for nothing else, then to satisfy my selfish need to say goodbye. "Chris is going to flay you, you know that, right?" was the first thing I said when he picked up.
"Then maybe I won't tell him nothing. I'm not stupid. Hi, Mikkel."
So, they know. He told them. That's good. "Hi, Justin. What's up?"
"I need your help, dude. And, hey, I'm sorry calling on you like this. It's just. I don't know who else, man."
I should disconnect at once. But I was too curious for my own good. "Help with what?"
"I got this car - I mean, I can have it for free if I pick it up before it's towed away on Monday. And, like, well, it won't start so I thought that maybe you could help me take a look at it?"
"Me? Chris can-"
"Shit, no. Chris can't move. He's in bed with a hangover-"
Chris, paler than usual and slightly bruised around the eyes, tentatively sipping orange juice, pausing, and then: the little heat-emission that also was a smile when his belly said to go ahead and drink.
"-Joey had to carry him home last night, and Chris threw up all over the stairs. It was like one huge stinky slide. Lance fell in it when he cleaned up."
"Oh." Damn, damn, damn. Chris! I dried my leaking eyes on the back of my hand. "Bet Lance got mad."
"No. Not really. I mean - he's bitching but, well, it's Lance. Man, Chris can be so stupid.... Anyway, please, Mikkel, I really need your help, I only have today to get that car home. The guy wants it off his hands, like, yesterday."
Jennifer had left the tea towel behind. I used it to dry my nose. "I thought you said Monday?"
"Yeah, but I gotta work tomorrow and Monday. Look, it's just, it's quick. I promise. "
"What's wrong with the car?"
"I don't know. It won't start?"
"Did you check the gas?"
"No. The guy said that that wasn't it. I don't know."
"Okay. I can take a look but I'm not spending all day on it. And you have to pick me up." Tom had taken his car to school. The football team was bussing from there to whereever this Saturday's football match was being held. And now Mormor was going to need the van for the expedition with the witches.
"Right. Sure. Maybe I can get my mum to drive us."
"Is your mum going to hang around while we look at the car?" Mothers! I'm sick and tired of them.
"No, man, she's got work. Wait a sec." The phone went dead for a moment, then Justin was back. "She said okay, she really wants to have her car for herself, so she'll drop us off in Russia as long as I get a car out of it."
"Russia? Where is that car?"
"In Orlando - man, don't worry. But it's gotta be now, dude. She's got stuff to do."
"Okay. Do you know how to get here?"
He didn't so I explained it to him. We disconnected.
Chris, Chris, Chris. Chris' hand, touching me- My stomach cramped and I curled myself around Violet. Fuck, I thought this part was over. Violet squirmed, and licked my face. "Sorry, girl." I took a deep breath, trying to force my stomach to unknot. Chriiiis!
Tom, I need a hug! Come home!
It took a while before I could uncurl enough to function. I set Violet down and went to pick up the tools that I could imagine we would need. And with no list to go by. Ha! I'll forget half of it.
I was sitting on the curb waiting for Justin when Lisa's mother came home. Having learned my lesson from Jennifer, I got up and crossed the street. "Lisa is in the park with my niece and aunt."
Ms. Connigan blinked at me. "Lisa went with whom?"
"My niece, Maria. I made lunch for them. They went on a mini-picnic to the lake."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I told her not to impose."
"Hey, hey." I held up my hands. "Ms. Connigan, you're have no reason to be sorry. It's a good thing. Maria doesn't know anybody in this neighborhood, she's lonely, and she could use a good friend like Lisa. Lisa is more than welcome at any time at our house."
She studied my face; I did my best to look as earnest as I felt. "To the lake, you said? With Maria's mother?"
"Yes and yes."
With a brief goodbye, Ms. Connigan walked towards the park. I silently said sorry to the girls for bringing the mothers down on them like that.
Finally Justin and his mother appeared, and I jumped into the backseat of Lynn's car. I really meant to ask Justin if he had the papers for the car but that could wait until Lynn had let us off. But as soon as we were out of the car and free to talk, the only question I could think to ask was: "How is he?"
Justin studied my face. "Dude! How are you? You look like hell."
I shook my head. I had asked first.
"Not good, man." He patted my shoulder. "Not good. I mean, he was crazy when the ex-girls quit but. Now, he's like biting everybody, except Busta. He probably knows he's being stupid. He hates that."
"Joey is with him?"
"Yeah. We're, you know, taking turns. The crash here at the beginning is mostly Joey's, he's the only one who can follow when Chris starts drinking."
"Good." Good? "Not the drinking but. Joey. You all." And in between he'll probably need a punch bag. I tried to figure out who would be assigned to that part.
"Yeah. And you? Anybody there for you?"
"My cousin, yeah. I'm okay." I had slept with Tom the last couple of nights. Apart from the stomach cramps and the virus infected memory - I'm fine. Perfect.
Justin snorted. "Okay." He flung a manly arm around my shoulder, this kid ten years my junior. "Come on. The car's over here."
He steered me across the street and down an overgrown dirt road between two apartment buildings. It was the kind of place where people air their dogs: we had to keep an eye on the ground. We met a Dachshund with a man on a leash, and sidestepped a very fresh dog turd in their wake. "Gross," Justin muttered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the man quickly turn his head, my neck warmed under his disapproving gaze but he didn't say anything.
The short piece of road ended in what looked to be an abandoned construction site. The access to the site was nearly blocked by a faded, and much battered, rust-rimmed, red Toyota Corolla parked in the shadow of a bushy tree. The sun-bleached, matted roof of the car was sprinkled with twigs and leaves from the tree.
"That one?" At the sight of the car something started nagging at the back of my memory.
Justin grinned and nodded. Letting go of me, he gently brushed a few twigs of the slightly dented hood. "Do you think you can make it work?" He blinked hopefully at me.Car was the right word: it was certainly a thing of four wheels. I counted them as I walked around it, checking for flat tires. Whether it was an automobile was yet to be seen. I got down on all fours to see if there was oil on the ground under it. There wasn't.
"Alarm?" I asked Justin who shook his head. I pushed the car to make it sway. There were no odd sounds, and the springs seemed okay. The brown teddy-monkey hanging from the rear-view mirror swung merrily on when the car stopped moving.
A thin layer of dust covered both the body and the tires. And there were perky straws of grass struggling to grow both in front of and behind the tires. "This thing has been standing here for a while, huh?"
"Yeah." Justin was watching me expectantly. "A couple of months, the guy said."
"Then the gas, if there was any left, has probably evaporated."
"I'll get some - there's a gas station right around the corner."
"Okay." I snapped my fingers. "Keys."
"Keys?" Justin blinked at me. "Keys! Oh, fuck - I forgot the keys!"
"Well, the driver's door only open from the inside anyway. Can't you. Can't you just." He made a telling motion with his hands. Which I could, and did while Justin hung on to my every move and kept putting bits of himself in front of me in order to see better. He may have forgotten the keys on purpose, just so that he could participate in the emergency class of "Break-in and Hot-wiring 1".
I asked him and he turned red. "Of course not!"
"I don't believe you; you're whining." I opened the hood.
He grinned unabashedly. "Can I check the oil?"
"Sure. Look for a blue tint." I took a good look around the engine but found nothing that sparked any alarms. The wires were almost without corrosion, there were no twisted or burned parts, and there were no visible traces of wrong liquids in wrong places. I hate it when nothing obvious is wrong.
"Is this enough oil?" Justin asked.
I looked at the pin. "Enough for now. You ought to top it off before you go anywhere though."
He dried the pin. "There's no blue tint." He sounded concerned. "Should there be?
"Blue tint means water; you don't want that in the oil. It's fine. Try starting the car."
He did. The motor rolled but died the death of a starved engine.
"Ignition sounds okay - go get the gas."
"Man, you're bossy!"
"I've got cracklings to make. And flower decorations. And no few other things. Justin - scram."
Justin grinned and picked up the empty plastic containers that he had brought along. "Flower decorations?"
"Okay. Don't do anything interesting until I'm back." He hurried away.
I didn't ask for definitions. It was, after all, his first car, and "interesting" likely included everything. Doubtless even a simple check of the fuel filter fell within the category. In the name of cracklings and flower decorations I went ahead poking around while I waited. When you look - you find. In this case I found a fouled sparkplug. Interesting. Very interesting.
A car rumpled into the dirt road behind me. I turned to check on it.
It was one of those cars with an excessive lighting installation on the roof.
Cops! Run! No - don't run!
What are they doing here? Blocking my exit - are they just rude or....
Are they after me? Should I run?
I was just standing there, keeping myself in check with a chant of don't run, don't run while trying to remember whether Mormor had told me what to do in case I got accosted by the police. It wasn't only the stress of multitasking that made me break out in stink sweat. Don't run! What did she say? Damn, damn. Don't run! Help!
Every story I had heard about the gun happy American police was surfacing in my memory - a memory that functioned just fine on that subject when I desperately needed it to do something else.
Naturally, it's only the really bad stories that make it across the Atlantic, and the ones that I could remember were all from Los Angeles. At that moment, Los Angeles was neighboring Orlando; I would have disputed any map had anybody cared to show me one.
A uniformed man and a like-uniformed woman got out of the car. They're looking at me! Don't run! My feet were screaming at me to move. I recognized the woman - she had been one of the two cops present the evening Chris had z-talked himself into a bar brawl. Only this time she was looking grim and far from the dancing-mood that she had been in that evening. Chris and I had sneaked out of the bar while it was still in an uproar; it would probably be stupid telling her that she and I were old acquaintances.
"Can't start?" The male cop asked, oh so casually, stopping a couple of steps from me while the female cop slowly continued past us.
Momentarily without words, I shook my head.
"What's wrong with it?" If he was trying to put on a helpful attitude, then his partner totally destroyed the effect. She was prowling like a predator on the hunt.
I swallowed, my mouth had dried out. "I found a fouled sparkplug. Could be anything."
"I see. A fouled sparkplug. Yeah, it probably could. Whose car is this?"
For a moment I felt inclined to say that the car was mine and pray that they would believe me and just leave.
The fiddled wires under the dashboard were dangling in plain sight of the female cop. Likely they were the reason she had stopped her prowl. He partner sent her a brief glare, and he probably received some kind of sign from her: he smiled grimly at me.
It seemed a good guess that they would want explanations no matter whose car it was.
Help! "Erh. Why are you asking? Is there a reason?" He's wearing a gun! "Sir."
"We just wanna talk with you and your friend. Where's your friend?"
"What do you want to talk about, sir?"
He eyed me for a moment before deciding to answer: "This car. It's been reported stolen."
I suddenly remembered trying to remember to ask Justin if he had gotten the papers on the car. Blast! What has Justin gotten himself into here? Scrap that: what has he gotten me into?
I'm going to wring his stupid neck.
Maybe I should start with my own.
My tongue was stunned by Mormor's dire threats as to what she would do to me if I harmed Christopher's career. If Justin, knowingly or not, was involved in something stupid like car theft, then Chris' career might get caught in the backlash.
And from the foggy hinterlands of my brain came the gentle thunder of Niller's rumble, telling me to keep my mouth the hell shut, even if what I had to say was reasonable - "law has nothing to do with reason". I even remembered the telephone number he'd made me learn by heart. It was a number long out of date - the telephone number system had been revised several times since then. Even if the call had had a lawyer at the other end, it would have been a uselessly Danish lawyer.
Across the years, Niller could still make me jump into line. Better leave this to lawyers of Chris' choice.
My hands were not only dirty with motor oil - they were also shaking. "I've got nothing to say, sir."
"Well, if you don't have anything to say then we gotta bring you in. Are you sure you don't have anything to say? It would be easier for both you and me if we could talk about things and figure something out here and now."
I hate this. "I'm sure. I'm going to leave the talking to a lawyer, sir."
He grunted wearily. "I'm Officer B. Johnson and you're under arrest on charges of car theft, mister. Raise your arms and turn around."
I complied. This is some kind of mistake - I'm not the stunt man in this take. Freed of my papers, lightly frisked and less lightly handcuffed, I was expediently stowed into the back of their car.
The very alert partner of Officer B. Johnson had been scanning the surroundings all the while. She kept scanning while Officer B. Johnson walked around the site. With morbid fascination I kept an eye on her. Justin could be rounding the corner at any time.
Focused on something behind me, she tensed. "Hey. You! Stop right there! Don't move!"
Quetly wimpering, I looked in the rearview mirror, and saw Justin with a plastic container in each hand, and an incredibly stupid expression on his face.
He stopped, saw the cops, saw the police car, saw me - his eyes made a go at climbing all the way out.
Don't run, don't run. They'll shoot you! Justin! Pleeeease! Los Angeles is just next door.
I was breathing a trifle easier when Justin stood unmoving.
"Put down the containers, slowly," she ordered him, and Justin slowly set the containers down. "Put your hands on the wall."
Justin was about to argue. I tried telepathy as hard as I could. Just do what she says. Do it! He must have listened: shoulders sagging he turned to the building next to him, and placed his palms on the bricks above his head.
Officer B. Johnson walked over to him; his partner followed at an angle that let her have Justin in sight all the way. It was Justin's turn to be frisked and have his papers checked. Then he started talking, and he talked a lot and very fast. My heart sped up, sending the needle straight into the red. That frigging motor mouth! Hasn't Chris told him anything!
I want Chris!
Justin didn't talk fast enough or maybe he just didn't say the right things. He too got his hands cuffed on the back, was brought over to the police car, and told to get in.
He clumsily did so; his knees were shaking visibly, just like mine still did.
For some reason, the cops walked around the car and ordered me out. This is it. They're going to beat me up. Fuck! But they didn't: I was left to stand next to the car, under close scrutiny of the female cop, while Officer B. Johnson made a brief call on the radio before he looked the Corolla over.
This could be part of something big - the Corolla is probably an escape car! I looked at the Corolla. It was one of the earlier models, and was more renowned for its economy than its speed. Or maybe not. Probably somebody got murdered in it. Shit, that's a capital- I quickly forced my imagination out of that track.
Inside the police car Justin squirmed finding out for himself that it was impossible to get comfortable with the hands tied behind his back. JC was definitely wrong about handcuffs. Handcuffs have no sex appeal whatsoever, plumbing or no plumbing attached. Uncomfortable things, really.
He looked up and caught my eyes; the grin he sent me was a shaken parody on his usual cocky one. I rolled my eyes at him. Fool. He shrugged "sorry" at me. His eyes were a little red-rimmed and glossy. I crossed my eyes at him and he smiled an almost-real smile.
"Cut that out." The small but hard feminine hands almost toppled me when they turned me around. Maybe she did remember me hauling Chris out of the club that night.
Officer B. Johnson came back and sat down in the driver's seat to use the radio. The words that he used was nonsense to me, and the answer he got back was too low and scratchy for me to hear. A third voice spoke - Justin the Babbler was at it again. I couldn't hear what he was saying. I wish that he would shut up. But he didn't.
Another police car rolled up and stopped behind the first police car. Out of it stepped a couple of cops - both of them size large and sinister looking. Oh, no. Oh, no. Suddenly gifted with x-ray sight, I could see baseball bats in their trunk.
"That's your ride, kid," the female cop said. She was only a few years older than I was - if she was older at all. "Come on, move."
"It's okay, I don't need my own transport. Actually, I like your car better. Newer model, right?"
"Are you resisting arrest?"
"No, no. Of course not, madam." Sorry, Justin. I walked over to the waiting cop who held the door open for me to get into the back seat.
The door was slammed shut. All four cops gathered between the cars, conferring briefly. Two cars with four cops for two car thieves? Somebody did get murdered in the Corrolla. Not thinking about that, right? So not.
Or maybe car theft today is as serious as horse theft was two hundred years ago.
Not thinking about that either.
I caught a snippet of what the woman said. "... seen that guy before, but heck if I can remember...." She sounded disgusted, perhaps it was with her memory - I knew that feeling.
This is it. I could hear drum-rolls when the two big cops were returning to their car. Goodbye, World.
Apparently I was granted a second chance: they did not fetch the baseball bats from the trunk.
As the car was backing out, the one not driving picked up a briefcase, and extrated a few papers form it before he turned in his seat to look at me. "Car thief, huh."
I looked out the window, afraid that my mouth might just start running. His eyes were just too much like Joey's, friendly and curious, only more weathered. Maybe my x-ray sight had malfunctioned, and the baseball bats didn't exist. Or maybe this guy is just extremely dangerous.
"So, where're you from?" His tone was patient.
Figuring that this was information they would get in any case, I answered. "Denmark; that's in Northern Europe."
"Ah. And how do you spell your name?" Using the briefcase for a desk, he wrote my name on the form as I spelled my name. We went through other personal data the same way. Then: "So, Mr. Swennsen, what're you doing in here in the US?"
"I'm visiting my grandmother."
"Yeah? Your granny? You're staying with her?"
"Who is she?"
I gave him the contact info - which was information that I was happy to give; I really wanted Mormor to know what was going on.
"What'll she say when she finds out what you've been up to?"
"I can't imagine."
He grinned. "Your partner back there - who's he?"
Watch it. "I'm sure he already told your collegues, sir. Where are you taking me?"
"To the station. We're gonna lock you up. You'll have to wait for processing; there's a line - we've been busy today. So, why did you come to visit your granny?"
Amazing. He's even nice about it when he tells people that they're going to be locked up. "She was in an accident, broke a leg, and I got concerned." I really should shut up.
"Yeah? You came all the way to check on your granny." He paused, studying my face. "That's something. Couldn't you just've picked up the phone?"
"No. I mean, she's really bad at asking for help."
"Ah. I see. So how's she doing? Is she okay?"
"Yes. She'll be fine. She'll probably have a limp but she'll be able to walk."
"That's good. Must've been expensive, taking a trip like that. Who payed for it?"
"I did." Well, at least for some of it. And maybe I should just shut up; this guy is too smart.
"You did. And what did it cost?"
Oh. Oh! This one's good. For me. I gave him all the details, comparing prices between several alternatives, running sums and converting to dollars as I went along. It was much easier than to keep my mouth shut.
"Man, you sure know your numbers." His eyes crinkled. "What do you do for a living?"
"Computer systems and home pages."
"Computers? Why did you get involved in something stupid like car theft?"
"As far as I know, it's just one big misunderstanding. But because I don't have all the data, I can easily mess the situation up even more and I don't want to do that - so I'm not talking about it."
"Huh. Not enough data?"
"Not enough data." I confirmed, making my mind up not to say anything further at all.
"Like data on what?"
I wagged my eyebrow at him and he grinned.
"You do computer systems?" It was the driver that spoke up. "Like pay-systems?"
"I'm don't I understand." It slipped out by accident, my tongue was all too lively.
"Barney, we can't-" the much-asking cop said but was interrupted by the other: "Ask him. He's one of them."
What? Who? Me? One of what?
Not-Barney muttered something and dug wrinkled pieces of paper out of his pocket. He sorted through them, found the one he wanted, and ironed it with his hand before he held it up. I leaned forwards to see better. It was a pay slip much overwritten with calculations done in a blue pen.
"How do a guy like you explain this?" Not-Barney asked. Suddenly his tone was a lot less friendly.
I have to do a sales talk now? Shit!
I was reminded by a song that Kim Larsen, a Danish songwriter, wrote about a fiddler that after a hard night's work fell into a bear pit. He played for the bear to keep it dancing instead of bashing. And as time went by, one fiddle sting broke after the other. A hunter saved him when there was only a single string left.
We had been sitting in the police car in the parking lot in front of the police station, analyzing the damned pay slip, for a good while, when I was saved by a man walking past the car. He sent Barney and Not-Barney a stern gaze, and they suddenly found it expedient to escort me inside the building.
They patted my shoulder and thanked me for the help. Then they locked me in a cage. The feeling of being saved went away instantly.
Justin was nowhere to be seen. Shuttered eyes, a pair of them fairly crazy and another set entirely too dull, watched me as I waked in. The door clanked shut behind me. The sound of keys rattling set my teeth on edge.
I hate being locked up! The walls were moving in on me, a small jump at a time. The mixed smell of body odors gone rank and something that had to be the smell of police station made me want to gag.
A bald, fat guy with scars showing through his stubble eyed me lazily; he was chewing on what looked to be imaginary chewing gum. Suddenly spoiling stupidly for a fight, I showed him my teeth. Dare me! Come on!
Maybe I had been wrong in my assessment of him, he smiled a small smile, his scowl dissolved into friendliness, and he nodded to me before looking away.
The walls were still closing in. I did what I could, closing my ears to the noise and voices around me, forcing my thoughts to focus on the calming patterns of a database that I had promised to have finished for the first proof read by Tuesday. Surprisingly, it worked.
I was working my way through a four-layered loop when my concentration was broken. Only this time it wasn't by Chris grinning under the arch of flying oranges, juggling them with easy hands. The entire construction in my head unraveled when somebody tapped my arm. "Hey, you." Chris laughing, oranges raining on him- I wasn't even sure that I had ever seen Chris juggle oranges, but I was sure that he could - and I knew exactly what it would look like.
The intruder was wearing a uniform so I did my best to be polite. "Yes, sir?"
There were snickers behind us when we left.
I looked around as we crossed a large, buzzing office, passing a couple of desks where there were interviews going on; Justin was nowhere in sight. What did they do to Justin?
He opened a door for me. "In here."
Uh, oh. What are they up to? I was pretty sure that we should have been sitting down in the office behind us to do the processing. "Can't we just sit out here?" Where people can see what you're doing to me. And that's not my teeth clattering. "It's a very cozy office. The color scheme is-"
He gave an impatient shake of his head. I should have been glad that he broke off my speech: it was really difficult to say anything positive about the color scheme. But right then I didn't really care; with a rapidly increasing production of stink sweat I walked inside the office - and stopped dead.
Joey and a very pale Justin were there, both smiling in obvious relief when they saw me. They were looking over the shoulders of a smaller, bespectacled guy who was glaring at me. He wore a red bandana that not only matched the red color of the fire in his eyes; it also set off his doughy complexion beautifully. His fists were clenching and unclenching at his sides.
Chris? That mad-eyed, mean were-grizzly is - Chris!
He's so beautiful when he's mad. And hangover-green.
Make him go hng, hng! Oh, shut up! He's all knotted up, he needs- I know what he needs: me!
"Mikkel Svendsen?" The cop behind the desk asked impatiently; maybe it wasn't the first time she had asked.
"Yes?" I want to look at Chris!
Think, you fool! This is trouble! Where's the lawyer? Help! There should have been suits with steel-framed glasses on corparate neutral faces and boring, black briefcases on their laps.
Oh, no. They've arrested them all! No wonder Chris is mad-
"You're a free man; the owner of the car has dropped all charges-"
What? What? The rest of what she was saying went right past me. It had the tone of admonition so it probably didn't really matter anyway. My thoughts were racing in circles and finally jumped out of the loop: the owner of the car - Chris? He had told me that his dad had stolen his car.
"It's your car?" I asked him when the she-cop stopped talking at me. "Justin found your car."
Chris nodded curtly and frowned; likely nods and other movements of his head, however brief, did not go well with his hangover. His temples were damp with sweat.
"I'm going to wring your neck," I said to Justin, sounding surprisingly calm - at least to my own ears.
"Chris already did!" Justin whined.
"I haven't even begun," growled the were-grizzly in a gravelly voice. Such a beautiful voice! He must hate to sing with it when it's like that. It would sound good, though. I want sex with the mad grizzly! Make him growl!
Justin was busy studying the floor and swallowing the slimy, wriggling slugs that popped up in his throat by black magic. It has its consequences, crossing a hung-over shaman of the grizzly totem; I almost felt sorry for Justin. Chris!
"And you...." The mean grizzly's attention shifted to me.
He didn't continue, instead he looked away, snarling in disgust with me and my stupidity. It was a powerful snarl - it sent a spear through my guts and slugs invaded my throat; I swallowed one creep after the other.
The cop cleared her throat and held out a paper for me. I took it with a hand that wouldn't stop shaking. It was a receipt for my things which, suddenly and out of nowhere, were cluttering her table. It took me a moment to figure out what she wanted from me. It looked like everything was there, so I signed the receipt, and jammed the smaller lose items into the pockets of my jacket before collecting those that couldn't find room in any pocket.
My voice sounded far away and very strange when I thanked the cop. Excusing myself, I followed the other three outside.
Chris walked with his head jutting forward, spearheading the four of us. We ran into Officer B. Johnson and his partner on their way in. I tried to imagine Chris' expression: the two cops eyed him warily, and stepped aside to let us pass.
Behind me I heard the partner talking to Officer B. Johnson in a low voice. "Hey - that other guy, the short one in front, I've seen him before too. Actually - I'm sure I've seen all of them."
Chris kept on walking, without a hitch he flowed down the steps; on the sidewalk he turned left, continuing without breaking speed. Bolts of lightning were both audible and visible in the cloud over his head; his hips rolled as he walked on quick feet. Chriiis!
Joey put a hand on my shoulder, stopping me. "Don't, man. That would turn out so bad. So bad."
Chris didn't even look over his shoulder, he just got smaller and smaller the further he went. The spear that Chris had left in my gut twisted hard. Chris!
Joey's arm that came around me while Justin hurried after Chris. "Hey, hey, Mikkel." Chris - turned a corner without looking back.
He can't do that!
But he did.
Justin disappeared around the corner too. He was carrying the stupid containers of gas.
I pulled the sparkplug out of my pocket. "The car needs this," I said as the world got blurry around the edge.
"Man," Joey took it, turned us and started us walking, keeping an arm around me. "Let me take you home, okay?"
"Fuck it. He could have said goodbye."
Joey sighed. "Mikkel.... I think that if he could've then he would've."
Joey gave me a squeeze.
"Still - he could've!" The crazy little fucker! He could've!
"Come on, man." Joey checked for cars, and crossed the street; still stuck in the crook of his arm, I went with him.
Joey held the door while I climbed into the car, which I did rather clumsily due to the thick fog that suddenly shrouded the surroundings. Wordlessly he dug out some paper napkins from the glove compartment and handed them to me. I dried my eyes and blew my nose; the paper napkins smelled of ketchup, and had red stains on them. Distantly I watched the now clearer world around us begin to move; at first it went a back and forth, then it decided on a direction that widened the gap between Chris and us.
I didn't speak for a long while, knowing that all that would get out of my mouth would be take me back, I want to see Chris, go the other way, please! Give me Chris! Or some such stupid thing heavily punctuated with wailing and clawing at the door.
"Okay?" Joey asked at some point; perhaps he could hear that my breathing had gotten easier.
"Yes. Thanks for getting me out. I'm sorry. I mean, I should have known what Justin was up to. It's so...."
He chuckled. "Yeah. Well, nobody can be smart all the time. Justin has a way of making it extra hard."
"You can say that." Also, showing Justin how to hot-wire a car perhaps wasn't the most brilliant of my recent moves. "I thought we were screwed when he started babbling. Why didn't you bring a lawyer? You took a risk coming on your own like that."
"Yeah, maybe." Joey frowned. "Chris didn't wanna wait for one."
Joey's answer made sense; a hurting Chris would be very, very bad at waiting for anything. I was watching the world; it was still rushing past us at incredible speed. It was amazing how people on the sidewalk didn't seem dizzy. I would have been.
End of Chapter
© Morgenfryd 2004