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9.1

FM14 (9.1)

Rupert carried six shopping bags into the Pubix grocery complex, a massive, fluorescent-lit, warehouse-size store where everything—from the produce to eggs, from cosmetics to toilet cleaners—was arranged by color. The place was packed full of people oblivious to the fact that there was anyone in the store but themselves, ramming carts into each other, into displays, into store supervisors, children. His body shifted straight into fight or flight mode, and since he’d never punched anyone in his life, his first impulse was to run back out the door. He followed close behind Fulva—she appeared to be familiar with the store’s layout—troubled that he was forced to use this woman as a homing beacon. This woman who, potentially, participated in ongoing relations with a human sociopath’s dislocated Ego-made-flesh in the form of her own doppelganger.

By the number of bags Jesus had collected for her, he expected to be there a long time, which was deflating, as he couldn’t take this kind of torture for more than about fifteen minutes before he involuntarily retreated to a catatonic happy place. And it only got later, the sun beginning its slow descent behind the flat stretch of ragged palms and big box stores. They stopped in an aisle labeled Miscellaneous Items. She grabbed a six-pound can of “heat ‘n’ serve” seasoned mixed vegetables, then headed to the check out. Rupert looked at his bags, baffled though relieved, then trotted to catch up with Fulva. Despite her short stride, she was quick.

As they stood two people back in a self-checkout lane, Rupert still looked perplexed.

“What?” she asked.

“This is all you need?” he asked, regretting it before the third word was out of his mouth. She’d think of something else and make him run to get it.

She looked indignant.

“I’m a vegetarian.”

Rupert had no idea how that was relevant.

“In fact, Rupie, I do need something else.”

Rupert’s stomach tried to escape down through his intestines and he broke into a sweat. He definitely had a preference regarding the level of bowel laxity he experienced in public. This was not it.

She looked around as if she were about to ask him to go find some feminine products, perhaps, or an enema. Then she curled her finger to command him down to her level and croak-whispered into his ear. His bewilderment returned, then he straightened up and looked around to the aisles signs.

Aisle Seven: Canned Fruit; Canned Beans; Canned Dick; Canned Tomatoes; Cooking Utensils.

What?

Anxious, Rupert squeezed his way through the long, messy lines of vexed, entitled shoppers, and missed becoming a casualty of several cart crashes by centimeters. He almost thought their aim was deliberate, as if to thwart his mission. Despite his size, too often (every time) in these situations, he felt too small. Too small to be let out of the house.

Aisle Seven—lousy with shoppers and their carts, blocking sections and set crooked in the center of the aisle. He searched and searched: Where the shit was the canned dick? Finally, he saw it, jailed behind the cage of an old woman’s cart. She stood several feet away examining a can of beans with methodical precision. Rupert looked at the cart, looked at her, looked at the cart, then thought, I gotta get out of here. He slowly, gently slid the cart over a few inches, just enough to get it: Sampson’s Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding.

“Thief!” A high-sandpapery voice came from the bean section. “Porch monkey’s trying to steal my cart!”

“Whoa, hey!” he yelled back. That is definitely racist.

“He’s yelling at me! Help!”

“Lady, I’m just trying to get some dick!” Rupert shouted and shook the can at her. He was no longer talking to himself. For a few moments, all he heard was the sweet, soothing, cottony sounds of Michael McDonald and his fellow Doobies as they kept holding on, minute-by minute, over the Pubix sound system. Everyone had gone silent and stared at Rupert, who turned quickly with the Sampson’s Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding in his hand, wanting to bash everyone between him and the register upside the head, then stalked through the crowd furious until he was again beside Fulva.

“Wow, you look upset,” she said, taking the can.

He looked at her and realized the fight or flight feeling had dissipated despite not having brained anyone with a can of Sampson’s Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding. He handed her the can and she set it in a half-empty display box of Crispy Craps, turd-shaped milk chocolate filled with crisped rice and some artificial flavor that smelled like shit. To be sure, a Florida thing.

“You need to listen more carefully, Rupie. Spot of dick, I said.” Then, a little louder: “I said, I could really use a spot of dick.” She sounded like she smoked four-hundred packs of cigarette a day.

Upon reflection, he had heard her correctly, but denial had kicked in and he’d flipped over to autopilot.

Rupert began to shake. The self-checkout line took forever.

“Rupie, I like you already. Something about you—you remind me of someone,” Fulva said. She made what Rupert thought was small talk. “You got anyone at home?”

“What? No,” he replied, and his heart either skipped or added an extra beat as he thought of Leenda.

“Well, that’s good news. Wow, you’re huge.”

The woman behind them tapped Rupert’s thigh with her cart, he thought unintentionally, but the look on her face indicated otherwise. It wasn’t even Porch-Monkey Woman from Aisle Seven. Rupert decided it was in his best interest to say nothing from this point on. Some nods, some shakes of the head, fine. But not a word. He was shutting down. The line hadn’t moved at all.

Fulva complained about Bill, and how she hated Osceola, which he thought was understandable.

“You know, he’s all sociable with Steve Perry, but that guy is weird. He keeps asking me how old Steve is and how well he is—he is morbidly pre-occupied with my monkey’s health. The guy’s sick. And Bill . . . God, Bill is useless. Do you know how hard it is to manage a useless idiot and a sicko with a HPSP act in this town? Fifty-seven percent of the population here is over the age of forty-five. Thirty percent is over sixty-five. Seventy-six percent, white.”

Rupert shook his head. It was clear she’d done her research, but then, you could probably throw out an accurate guess with those numbers simply by having a look around.

“Oh, and that scar on his head . . . ?”

Rupert nodded.

“Whackin’ Dick. I guess MeeMaw could really pack a wallop with that thing.”

Rupert looked down at her. “Not a gang fight.”

“Duh.”

There followed a lengthy lull.

“Oh, by the way,” Fulva rasped. “Nice man purse.”

* * *

In the parking lot, Rupert loaded the bag carrying Fulva’s six-pound can of “heat ‘n’ serve” seasoned mixed vegetables and the five empty shopping bags into her Magenta 1993 Geo Tracker Convertible that he’d barely squeezed into. In a neighboring plaza, the police yelled and struggled with a full grown man on a child’s bike in a Bean Ringer “Mexican Fast Food” drive-thru. He couldn’t hear what they were yelling, but he was glad he was not that big man on the small bike. Then, in the Pubix grocery store parking lot, he heard, “Freeze! Hands Up!” Rupert looked around as Fulva hopped up into the Tracker, despite having no idea what he was looking for, though he did notice the only other black folks in the lot—a couple—threw their bags into their car, got in, and locked their doors. Rupert then crammed himself into the Tracker and as they pulled away, he saw two black labs disappear behind a Winnebago.

Beast14

After the trials of the previous night, Cheylard seemed hardly worth the trouble. There was no particular street, but the structures were spread haphazardly over a slight space; piles of winter cordwood lay heaped in seemingly no certain arrangement. A smattering of crooked crosses skulked around a shrine to Our Lady of All Graces that held sway atop a low hill, all upon a drab river running through a sterile valley.

On a small and weatherworn church hung a banner reminding the townsfolk of the good they’d done in the last year—forty-eight francs collected, to be used for the Word of the Propagation of the Faith, or conversion. Louis—of a Protestant family and frequent visitor to Greyfriars, where the Scottish Covenanters signed their sacred Covenant and vowed to resist unholy Catholic oppression—felt as if he’d walked into a den of lions. Though not heartily attached to the faith of his father—as their still painful quarrel manifested—he supposed that his philosophy was much weaker than his heredity, for against all reason, he seemed to feel the fury of John Knox rise in his blood.

But the inn at Cheylard, and the Catholic family than ran it, proved, perhaps, to be the warmest he’d yet come upon. Again, the building was unassuming; the kitchen a good size, for it had to be, as it contained all the furniture of the large family—the beds, cradle, clothes, plate rack, meal-chest, and, of course, photograph of the parish priest. There were five children—a sixth on the way—and Louis predicted this industrious couple was only just beginning.

The tiny wood that Louis passed the night in belonged to this family, and upon hearing of his mistreatment at the hands of the man in Fouzilhac, it was suggested that he beckon the law against him, monster that he was.

“You could have died,” the good wife said, and upon her horror at Louis’s attempt to console himself over a pint of uncreamed milk, she insisted he let her boil it for him. “You’ll do yourself an evil.”

Louis’s boots and gaiters were placed by the fire to dry, and the landlady suggested apologetically that he make himself a hot bowl of chocolate, for she was presently besieged by the wrangling of her hefty brood and the departures of the previous night’s travelers, all as she maneuvered her own personal cargo around the kitchen. Seeing the busy woman so round in belly, Louis gladly took on his own caretaking. He made his chocolate and then retired to an out-of-the-way corner to set about making his notes upon his knee. Soon, the eldest daughter beckoned him to the fire and to his surprise and appreciation, she unhooked and let down a hinged table at which he could somewhat comfortably write. Somewhat, as the makeshift desk was located in the chimney corner, which put him almost closer to the flames than his drying boots. With each re-kindling handful of twigs, Louis’s legs smoldered, though this wasn’t entirely awful, particularly after the previous night’s discomforts. Soon, any small crook or wedge of Louis that remained even remotely damp was dry as a stick upon the flame.

Once he felt more like himself—the bundle the old man of Fouzilhic had given him contained a hearty meal of bread and fruit which helped the matter significantly—Louis took himself to a small bench in front of the inn to have a cigarette and reflect on recent events.

The legend of the beast has, as unlikely as it would have seemed, made itself a reality. Exactly what it is, he didn’t know. Wolf or man, he was willing to consider the possibilities, but he drew the line at that fanciful cryptic combination of man and wolf, baying at the moon and transforming from mild-mannered goat farmer to a vicious, baby-eating fiend when the luminous crescent grew full in the night sky. That a family could be evil, in the blood and to the bone, Louis could comprehend. That superstition could lead other families, in tragic circumstances, to carry on grudges for decades, again, Louis could understand. But the idea that there was one family of werewolves brazenly and consistently preying on their neighbors was too much. The wolves were real—he’d heard them and prayed they kept their distance.

And that cloaked figure, Louis was fairly certain, was also real.

Here he paused. Taking a final drag from the stub of his cigarette, he wondered, then extinguished the first butt and rolled another. Although he should be getting on, he was not finished with his thoughts, and he felt compelled to have come to some sort of conclusion before re-embarking on his journey.

Was the cloaked man real? When Louis first saw him before Bouchet, it was in the dark and at a distance. Could he have been the ragged line of a shrub? An invention of Louis’s haggard mind? Perhaps. But there was no mistaking the sighting outside Pradelles. Pradelles made his heart ache, astounded that he could become so attached to a creature he’d met so fleetingly, and yet have barely developed much more than a mutual toleration of the beast of burden with whom he traveled.

Louis inhaled hard from his cigarette. As if she heard his thought, he saw Modestine peek a nose and eye from behind the nearby stable wall, munching a golden breakfast of hay, then withdraw, chewing.

He supposed that wolf, man, or both, it didn’t matter. His journey was unfurling before him and it was not the flag he’d expected to follow. These were not the reflections he’d anticipated. And, in fact, at the realization that his plans had, in a way, been hijacked, Louis fumed. He was supposed to be figuring out and re-aligning his mess of a life! He was supposed to be experiencing and recording, making plans for a book that would further his literary career—and about what? “Superstitions with a Donkey in the French Highlands?”

He was supposed to be meditating on the perplexing nature of one Fanny Osbourne, stealing himself for the terrible news that would come to him via Alès, or fortifying his heart for the great joy he’d shamelessly indulge at the perfumed letter he’d receive rejoining him, come to America and I will be your wife! On his life, he was supposed to be sorting out if he was even fit to serve as husband, or if the institution of marriage was still too ferocious and fearsome an adventure for even Robert Louis Stevenson, experienced canoesman and driver of donkeys.

No closer to a conclusion regarding his situation thus far, Louis crushed the stub of his cigarette under his boot, gathered his things from the inn, and made his way to the stable.

The host of the inn was there with Modestine.

“This package should be changed,” he said. “Maybe divided. Then, you could carry even more.”

“But I do not need to carry more,” Louis answered. “And I cannot very well carve up my sleeping sack, or it ceases to be what it is and is of no use.” Louis could hardly disguise his annoyance at one more possible hitch, all of which, at this point, bordered on crisis in his mind.

“But it tires her,” the man said, and pointed to the donkey’s forelegs which were rubbed raw.

Louis set down his pack and softened to the plight of his companion. He was so distracted by everything else, this he failed to notice. He petted Modestine down her forehead and nose.

“She can be patched up?” he asked. The man nodded, and Louis nodded back.

After only ten minutes, the man had fixed up the traveler with a salve, and though the sack could not be cut in two, it was now adjusted so that it hung lengthwise over her back, like a massive green frankfurter. Louis purchased a new cord from the innkeeper and tied up his effects so that they would not spill onto the trail, and the weight of the thing was now equally and more easily balanced across the little donkey.

“See?” the man said. “It feels lighter to her.”

And Louis did feel better about it. As frustrating as she could be, his constant prodding with the goad, though better than the switch and more effective than the staff, still pained him somewhat, for he didn’t like to be cruel. If even against every other catastrophe, this one load was lightened a little, and if he should find himself in the position to sleep again, he might a little more soundly.

With that, they were once more on the trail. This time, on to the town of Luc.

The way was harsh and the wind strapping enough to force Louis to keep a hold of the pack upon Modestine’s back, stopping it from launching itself and everything he had into the gale. The terrain was a veritable wasteland, worse than the most barren of the Scottish Highlands, of which Louis could attest. All that broke the monotony was the road and an occasional fence. Other than that, standing stones placed at intervals marked the way in winter when all around must be an intolerable wilderness of blinding white. But there were no wolves, nor were there friendly foals to lose so violently. And, most liberating, there was no cloaked man. Despite being unsure of his existence, the idea of the mysterious follower buzzed in Louis’s brain like a mosquito at which he occasionally slapped.

However exhausting it was to work relentlessly at his pack, in the face of the wearisome tedium of the landscape, the physical distraction was welcome. It kept his mind busy and away from anything too harmful, whether that be some mysterious figure or the well-formed figure of Fanny, and for that he was thankful.

Finally, to town. Luc was like a twin to Cheylard, a jumble of houses, a ramshackle church, and, of course, the inn. Louis half-expected to enter and find that same Catholic family, with their five-and-a-half children, and their bowls of hot chocolate. But this was Luc, made apparent by the ruinous castle of the same name. The seat of the family Luc, it was built upon an ancient Celtic site in the 12th century. It served many roles over time and was then was ordered destroyed by Richelieu in 1630. At the inn, Louis learned, at length, that the locals had, as recently as October of this year, refurbished the castle’s keep, transforming it into a chapel, and peaked with a massive, shining-white statue of Our Lady, whom, the villagers bragged, weighed fifty quintals.

The inn was much larger than the previous one—the kitchen contained two box-beds with spotless checked curtains hiding their bunks; a broad, stone chimney, whose mantel measured four yards and held aloft a number of lanterns and an interesting selection of religious figurines made of painted plaster; a collection of chests; and two clocks that tick-tocked loudly and occasionally in unison. The landlady moved about the place silently, a dark-looking old woman clad all in black like that of a habit.

There was also a communal bedroom that held three box-beds along the wall, curtained similarly to those in the kitchen. The center of the room was occupied by a long wooden table and accompanying benches. The furniture convened gloomily, waiting for the happy harvest feast, or perhaps the victory banquet of a band of Vikings, newly returned from a fruitful season of pillage and plunder.

With Modestine comfortably lodged in the inn’s stable, her injuries again salved and already healing, Louis spilled himself into one of the bed bunks following an adequate dinner of fish, bread, and wine. Finding it to be padded with straw, and following such a grueling day regarding his pack, he felt more like his little donkey than ever. He fell swiftly to sleep, waking only once during the dark night, and then only to find himself shivering without a blanket. He arranged his sleeping sack within the bunk awkwardly, crawled back inside, and slept the sleep of a warm infant nestled betwixt a pair of faithful parents.

8

FM13 (8)

Needless to say, the kitchen was pink, but a lighter pink. Berbie doll pink. The large windows admitted a lot of light, and Rupert thought maybe the room had been much pinker, but had been faded by the sun—just like the rest of Florida, and everything in general, heading steadily into a state of extreme decline. Whatever the case, the color was a little less traumatic.

“Hey,” Rupert started as Jesus opened a pantry door and leaned in. “What the hell was all that?”

“Which part?”

The incredulity on Rupert’s face surpassed the average expression and Jesus was impressed.

“Well,” Jesus began. “I’m not sure, but rumor has it that MeeMaw is Bill’s dead grandmother and she used to run a sex/head shop called the Hump ‘n’ High. As a kid, Bill was in charge of the sex toy inventory—”

“Hence the nickname.” Rupert nods.

“Yeah. Don’t ever call him ‘Bildo.’”

“Ahhh yeah, I get it.” Rupert remembered the name—SIKildo Industries. “The name of the organization.”

“Yeah, he hates it. She even capitalized her name and lowercased the ‘ildo.’ That’s some cold shit.”

“Hard to find colder shit.”

Simón. Anyway, whenever he screwed up, MeeMaw would beat him about the head with that sparkly pink dildo, calling him Bildo and other stuff.”

“That’s pretty messed up.”

Jesus nodded. There was a lull in the conversation as Jesus dug through a wooden crate in the pantry.

“Whose job is it to spray paint everything pink that’s not already pink?” Rupert had to ask.

“Guess.”

“Bildo.”

“Bingo.”

“Jesus,” Rupert began again.

Jesus pulled his head out of the pantry long enough to give Rupert his full attention.

“Yes, Mr. Questions?”

Rupert hesitated.

“Jesus . . . what’s cooncunt oil?”

Jesus leaned back in and continued rummaging through the crate. “I guess they don’t have that up north. Cooncunt oil is the greasy secretion extracted from the vaginas of Florida’s diurnal raccoons. Well, not the vaginas, but that area; I don’t know. I’m not a cooncunt oil expert.”

It was quiet for a long time.

Then Jesus continued: “No, I don’t know how it’s extracted. No, I don’t know what they do with the raccoons afterwards. No, I don’t know if it’s cruelty free.” Jesus went on, still in the pantry. He then emerged with two handfuls of sustainable, recycled shopping bags. “But I do know that it’s non-toxic and latex-safe.”

“Good to know. I was afraid it was something racist.”

“In Florida?” Jesus said. “Racist? Nigga, please.”

“Nigga’s bigga, Beaner.”

“Point taken.”

Rupert liked this easy-going, unoffended chemistry between reasonable people who knew a thing or two. Though, “reasonable” and knowing anything was relative. He’d take it.

Jesus went on: “So, he oils it for two purposes, as far as I can tell: Number One, to preserve the thing, ‘cause it must be at least twenty years old, and Number Two—and this is only speculation based on regular observation—”

“You’re very articulate.”

“You’re pushing it. I got my BA, motherfucker. He does it to appease the spirit of MeeMaw so that she won’t listen to Fulva and rape him in his dreams.”

Rupert stared at Jesus.

“Sidenote: Bill thinks Fulva has magical powers and can communicate with MeeMaw without the Whackin’ Dick totem, and is thus able to control his dreams.”

“So,” Rupert said. “Bill is afraid his dead grandmother will fuck him stupid with a wide array of dildos in his dreams if he doesn’t behave and listen to Fulva.”

“Yes.”

“That is unfortunate for Bill.”

“Bill’s an unfortunate guy. Also, tip: don’t ever bring her the green one,” Jesus said, holding up the bags. “She hates it but won’t throw it away because it’s wasteful. Now, betcha a nickel that when we go back in there, Bill’s semi-comatose in a beanbag killing things on the VMS4.”

“Nope. You’ve got the inside advantage. But seriously—that’s fucked.”

“Fucked in the ass.”

“Like a priest in the rectory.”

“Like sailing the windward passage, ese.”

“Like spearing the chocolate starfish, my friend.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I got on a roll.”

“Damn.”

Rupert felt uncomfortably comfortable with Jesus, and so now became suspicious and nervous.

When they returned with the shopping bags, Bill was shaking and weeping in a large beanbag chair in front of the VMS4. Somehow, Rupert didn’t think playing a few levels on the Virtual Murder Station during what appeared to be a psychotic break was the best idea ever, but he supposed everyone had their comfort activity. Right now, his comfort activity would be to get the fuck away from these people. He saw Fulva’s meditation mat was empty. Now that he could see behind it, he saw a small shrine erected with bowls of egg-shaped vibrators, burning incense, and a large framed picture of a person whose features were hard to make out—a disturbing, rubbery-looking, androgynous face, but blurry and distorted, not as if there had been a problem with the camera, but a problem with the subject. He elbowed Jesus and gestured to it.

Jesus looked at Rupert, then at the photo, then looked away quickly and drew in a quick breath through his teeth.

“Nope. Don’t ask.”

“Well, now I have to.”

Jesus sighed and his entire demeanor fell to a defeated slump. “Derek Peterson.”

“Holy shit. I don’t know who that is.”

Jesus pointed to the stack of books Rupert had noticed on the way in.

“I still don’t know who that is.”

Jesus pointed to the couch. “Sit.”

It seemed like sound advice, so, despite not wanting to touch the couch, Rupert sat. Jesus sat on the other end, sighed again, and gathered his thoughts. He took off his sunglasses and pushed his bandana up, just a bit. This was the first and last time Rupert ever saw his eyes, which were green, like the bandana.

“This is the legend, as I’ve heard it,” Jesus said.

“An actual legend, huh?”

“Once upon a time, there was this guy—”

“Peterson.”

“No. Not exactly,” Jesus said. “Don’t interrupt . . . there was this guy. He was physically a big guy, but emotionally, very small. He was part of a group of creative types who inwardly and rightfully judged their own work inferior to the work of better creatives, so they called themselves “fringe,” formed their own clique, and produced and consumed each others’ work, despite the fact that they weren’t very good.”

“Sounds like a circle jerk.”

“Correct. Anyway, it’s one way people ignore their weaknesses and instead of strengthening them through adversity, they settle and play up their faults as virtues.”

“That’s very astute.”

“Well, that’s just one way. A social way. Then there’s another way. An anti-social way, and this guy indulged in that as well. He would feed his emaciated ego by selecting individuals whom he would spend a tremendous amount of time and energy on, making them feel very special and somehow elevated, even above the circles in which he generally ran. He would do this over an extraordinary length of time, because the more thoroughly he had his victim hooked, the greater the payoff.”

“Peterson?”

“Shut it. No, not Peters—just let me finish.”

Rupert held his hands up and mime-zippered his mouth shut.

“He did this when his self-loathing got to be too much, so every few years. It was a lot of work. He’d select them, befriend them, and bring them to the pinnacle of their own self-esteem, pull them so close, it seemed only a membrane separated them; as if they were twins of the same womb—building them up and up and up, and then, when the time was right, and he felt he was about to disappear into the void of his own sense of nothingness, instead of losing himself in that void, he’d throw them in instead. He would abruptly swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, degrading them, telling them how terrible, worthless, and downright malevolent they were.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Yes, it is. Like, gaslighting, except not over time—just one fell swoop.”

“A gas explosion.”

“Precisely. Anyway, it would psychologically and emotionally wreck his victim—the pain of that kind of betrayal is palpable. You can almost touch it. And he would consume it till his ego was big, and fat—a disgusting, corpulent, cancerous mass, which he fed till it might burst. He reveled in that power, and it would last him a couple years until, incapable of regularly feeding his ego in a healthy, nondestructive way, he would wither again and go in search of a new victim.”

“What the fuck—?”

“Right?”

“No. What the fuck does this have to do with Derek Peterson?”

“Getting to that. So, his last victim was his worst—he’d really outdone himself on that one, and when he let the boot drop, the pain and confusion was so extreme, so delicious, he did feed until he burst. Perhaps he underestimated the degree of damage he’d inflicted this time, but he fed as if it were like any other, until it was too much, like accidentally snorting heroin instead of the cocaine you think you’re putting up your nose.”

“He . . . actually burst . . . ?”

Jesus gave Rupert a look, like: Come on, man.

Rupert shrugged.

“No. First, he dissociated. His identity winked out of existence and he had no memory, no coherent thought, no idea what to do, and no idea where he was. He didn’t know who he was. But soon, that dissipated—he came back to himself, but he felt different. He felt as low as he’d ever felt when he reached what he’d thought was his lowest, but leagues beneath that. It was like floating in the infinite space of the bottomless pit, the fall of which you know will never end, and the hope of climbing back up entirely absent.”

“The abyss.”

“Some say,” Jesus agreed. “He was empty, and not in the good, Buddhist way of being “empty.” And he intuited that, no matter what he did from this point on, he could never come back from this. He would never feel whole again. Then, the nightmare. He turned around and there was Derek Peterson.”

“What? Where’d he come from?”

“Man, he came from inside this guy—this was the ego this guy had been feeding and nurturing through the pain of other people, all those years, popped right out of his revolting psyche and was now loose, running amok.”

Rupert stared at Jesus. “Then what . . . ?”

“What do you mean, then what? That’s it. That’s the legend.”

“But . . . who was that guy? The sociopath?”

“No one remembers.”

“What happened to him?”

“Lived out his life in obscurity with his group of mediocre underachievers.”

“That doesn’t seem fair. Seems like he got off scot free.”

“Oh no, he didn’t. Inside, every minute of every day was plagued with self-hatred and suicidal ideation.”

Well, that sounds familiar. Rupert frowned.

“Why didn’t he just do it, then, if it was so bad?”

Jesus smiled and shook his head. “Because his worthlessness would always be a fraction of a degree stronger. Ultimately, he was a coward. He couldn’t even gather enough internal fortitude to save himself by ending it. Trust me—he didn’t win that one.”

Rupert nodded. “What happened to Peterson?”

“He is a physical presence now, on this plane of existence, and an embodiment of severe psychological derangement, adept at charming the weak, and acts of destruction of unparalleled proportions. Obviously, he took to writing books.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Story goes, he spent the ensuing years doing time in prison and brothels, which he considered identical. He also rides the Galloping Horse.”

“What?”

“Scag.”

“What?”

“Heroin, man.”

“You forget, I just got here today.”

“True. Anyway, Fulva sells it to him half price in exchange for . . . services. Comes by here on occasion, you know, when Bill’s off cookin’ in one of The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing)’s shitters. Gets high, fucks Fulva flat, and then lounges around the room naked shooting Dooley and drinking Ting—”

“The orange-flavored drink originally designed for astronauts?”

“—you got it . . . lecturing everyone on the ins and outs of the Pennsylvania penal system between bouts with Fulva, which . . . ” Jesus leans forward and lowers his voice to a whisper. “He does not seem to enjoy.”

Rupert smiled. “How do you know?”

“Calls it ‘walking the beaver ditch.’ I see him leaving sometimes. I won’t look directly at him—not at his face—but he looks like a broken man after a visit to Segue-La.”

“Why not his face?”

“I don’t want to know.”

“Know what? What he looks like?” Rupert pointed over his shoulder in the direction of the photo on Fulva’s Peterson altar. “But it’s right there, how could you not know?”

“I’ve never looked directly at that picture and I never will. And if you’re smart, you’ll forget what you saw.”

Oddly enough, Rupert had already forgotten what he’d seen. Tempted to turn around and refresh his memory, Jesus’s vague warning checked him.

“Why?”

“From what I’ve heard, Derek Peterson doesn’t have his own face.”

“He doesn’t look like the guy he came from?”

“Apparently not. I understand that whomever looks upon the face of Derek Peterson sees not Derek Peterson, but a reflection of their own worst nature.”

“Like a warning? Like—”

“Like the inscription on a gravestone—beware, friends, as you pass by, as you are now so once was I . . . ?”

“That’s a Metoollica song.”

“It’s both. But, yes. And no. You could read it like that, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t intend it that way. More like, ‘Look at what you are, you scumbag motherfucker. You should kill yourself.’”

“Hmm. Wait, how does Fulva . . . ?”

Jesus heaved a final sigh.

“This is why I don’t fuck with Fulva. Fulva has been known to remark on occasion, when Bill isn’t around, that fucking Derek Peterson is like fucking a massive, masculine version of herself. And she loves it.”

“She just sees her own face . . . ?”

“Unadulterated.”

“I think that’s the most fucked up part of this story.”

“Agreed.”

“That was a long story. How long have we—?”

Fulva sprang out of a back room, startling both Jesus and Rupert. She had changed into a new pair of yoga pants which featured Derek Peterson’s shapeless face screen-printed over the crotch, from which both Rupert and Jesus averted their eyes. She also wore a superfluous pink feather boa.

Jesus leaned up to Rupert to whisper: “He also has a line of yoga pants for women. It’s called Little Girl.

“Time to go shopping!” Fulva squelched. “Jesus, get back behind the FFG and sell some goddamn tickets. Rupie, come with me.”

Beast13

Louis was able to discern four houses, not three. This was not Fouzilhic, but, he believed, its twin, Fouzilhac. The rain fell sideways into his face as he gazed at the glowing panes. Modestine shivered and shook her head. Did Benoît say Fouzilhic or Fouzilhac? He considered the old man who helped him find the road. Surely he could not be a member of that cursed family, being the only inhabitant with enough human decency to care a stalk of parsley how Louis ended the night. But he hadn’t warned him of the split in the road, and then there was that strange gesture he’d left him with—the curled fingers above his head, the screeching. Louis had only thought him a strange old Frenchman, but perfectly agreeable otherwise. Now he wondered if the gesticulation had been less silly and more menacing; was it a gesture at all, or what it a curse?

Louis’s eyes grew wide at the thought. Had that bizarre old man in Fouzilhic laid upon him some regional, rural hex? A nervous snort erupted from him and he covered his mouth. The thought was both quaint, yet terrifying. When he related this story to his friends back home, he would laugh and everyone would comment on the peculiar behaviors of these rustic peoples. But now, knowing the radiance of these windows was only temporary and that soon enough, he would be back out into the sinister night, it was less than funny.

The door he knocked upon stood between him and an old, lame lady who claimed to be alone, and therefore couldn’t possibly open the door to a stranger in the dark. And this was fair enough, albeit frustrating. He moved on to the next house.

The entire family opened the door—a man, two women, and a girl—carrying lanterns to best scrutinize he who dared disturb their peace. The man leaned against the doorframe and asked what Louis wanted, seemingly amused by the worn and soggy condition of the wretch and his donkey before him. His hair was unkempt and shabbily trimmed, hanging straight down to his eyes over a thick, dark brow.

Pardon, monsieur,” Louis said, “I was hoping I might find a guide to Cheylard.”

The man shied away slightly and the women behind him smirked.

“But, you see, it’s awfully dark out,” he said.

“I’m aware. That is the reason I am in need of a guide, you see,” Louis replied.

“I understand, but,” the man whinged. “It is difficult . . .”

“No one knows better than I, sir.” Louis grew impatient. “I will pay.”

The man shook his head as the rain continued to fall on Louis and Modestine.

“Ten francs,” Louis tried. But the man still shook his head.

“It is difficult,” he repeated.

“If no one should take me, what exactly do you propose I do?”

“Where are you going?” the man asked. “Beyond Cheylard?”

“It is not your business. It has no bearing on where I am trying to go tonight, and how.”

The man laughed and the light giggles behind him gave the sound a preternatural air.

C’est vrai, monsieur,” he said. “That is very true.”

Just then, Louis recognized the girl behind the man in the doorway.

“You!” he exclaimed. “Didn’t I see you in the fields, while it was still light?”

“You did,” she said. “I told him to follow the cows.”

The man looked at Louis as if he’d finally found the reason he really couldn’t be bothered to help this rude foreigner on his doorstep—the Scot must have been stupid.

“And how,” the man began, “did you manage to get lost?”

“You,” Louis pointed past the man to the girl, “you think it’s funny.”

The girl laughed and receded into the cottage.

“I’m sorry, monsieur,” the man said. “But, no. It is dark.”

“Then bring along a lantern,” Louis rejoined, annoyed.

The man shook his head.

“You, sir, are a coward.”

Louis hoped that would provoke the man into feeling obligated to defend his honor, but, much to his disappointment, it did not. The man simply crossed his arms, shook his head, and said, “It is what it is.”

Feeling he might lose his temper, Louis turned his back on the family, the cottage, and heard the sound of the door being closed and latched, and then, to his loathing, laughter—the girl’s loudest among them. Modestine snorted and Louis patted her neck.

As his night vision slowly and reluctantly returned, the pair stumbled over stony patches and rubbish heaps. He left Modestine to knock on other doors, but the windows were dark and no one replied. After another twenty minutes of blind groping to rediscover his cohort, he decided, water or none, they had to put down for the night.

Though the wind still blew, the rain had stopped, and Louis was thankful for that small fortune. They walked as straight as they could muster from the collection of houses, looking for a wooded area in which to shelter themselves from the wind. An hour later, an exasperated Louis and thoroughly drenched donkey finally located something suitable. On the opposite side of what Louis thought was a road stood a thicket of trees—the limbs arced overhead and formed what could be described as an arboreal cave.

Louis led Modestine into the grove, felt around for a sturdy branch, and tied her off. More groping revealed that the trees actually grew against a short stone wall that flanked the road. As he spread his pack at the base of the wall he wondered at the many possibilities that he’d be waking to in the morning, as he really had no idea what was around him. He felt around for a candle, but instead joyously happened upon the lamp.

The wind howled through branches that stretched back, he assumed, for at least half a mile. One match failed almost immediately, but the second match—as he cupped the wick as close to the wall as was possible—brought long-yearned-for light to his small, bleak nook of the world. Louis’s success was instantly tainted when his beloved light actually made him feel more vulnerable. While the night was black as coal, by the time his eyes had adjusted fully, he was able to make out the vaguest shapes, but now, beyond the short reach of the lantern, he could see absolutely nothing. He couldn’t have imagined the blackness could turn blacker. But it did, and he felt more cut off from mankind than ever.

He resolved to make his preparations quickly and extinguish the light. He retied Modestine so she could better make her bed and then fished out a half-loaf of black bread for her dinner. Then, he arranged anything he thought he might need in close proximity to his sleeping sack, took off his sodden boots and gaiters, and crawled inside his bag, adjusting his knapsack as a pillow. His own dinner was a tin of Bologna sausage and a cake of chocolate, washed down with a bit of brandy, neat. It was as disgusting as it seemed, but he swallowed dutifully and rewarded himself with a much-savored cigarette.

Before he leaned back against his makeshift pillow, he put out the lamp and once again allowed the night to engulf them. Modestine, for a while, was lit dimly by the inhaling red glow of his cigarette, until he was finished, and then it was dark. He sank into his sleeping sack—over his head with more than enough room to spare—and marveled at its quick accumulation of warmth. The wind whipped the foliage overhead, sending the occasional shower of rain from the slippery still-green leaves. The drops hit, then beaded and slid from the canvas. Louis glowed inside gratifyingly. This was not a fireside in Cheylard, and it may have indeed been even better.

And then, beneath the roar of wind, there came a sound. It rolled in with each gust, rippling in volume as it did. A howl, and not just any howl—a wolf’s howl. Into the warmth he’d managed to generate, a chill intruded, beginning in his toes and shooting straight up to the crown of his skull. His hair bristled. At once, the woods in which he lay were teaming with sounds he’d not previously noticed, every one of them a sign that some monster lingered just a breath away, in this brush, or behind those trees. What he thought may have been a half-mile of forest could very well have been mile upon mile, all inundated with those hackled grey pelts housing no more than a stomach and a set of fangs.

One howl joined another, and then another, and another, in a sickening chorus of fiends. Louis wished for the rain again, cold and hard, anything to drive the beasts back into whatever shelter they kept for themselves. But the unholy refrain only swelled until Louis felt sure it came accompanied with some music—the tinkling of a pianoforte, perhaps. It was so faint and the wind so loud that Louis stopped straining to hear and gave it up as an invention of his weary brain. It could very well have been some strange night bird, like the wolves, unafraid of a little wind and rain. But the howling went on.

It seemed to go on for an hour, and the imagined music came and went, so that Louis thought perhaps he’d go mad before dawn. But he was also exhausted from the day’s trek, and despite it all, he found himself drifting into sleep. The howls followed him there, and his slumber was haunted by nightmarish images, the most memorable of which was the old man from Fouzilhic, gesticulating in his strange way, blood pouring from his mouth. At his feet, the mauled, pale corpse of the girl from Fouzilhac, her dress shredded, her flesh slashed.

Though Louis didn’t wake until it was with the sun, his sleep had run from deep to shallow as he tried desperately to escape the images his mind threw at him. When he did wake, it was to music. It was the music he couldn’t with certainty hear the night before, under the wind and the wolves.

Louis sat up stark in his sleeping sack and looked about him. There was the short stone wall and the road. Above him was the canopy of trees that had sheltered him from the worst of the rain, and whose density only ran back fifteen feet or so—hardly the sprawling forest of impending death he’d imagined in the dark.

And there was that tinkling.

Modestine stood nearby where he’d left her. Her eyes were large and round, and looked as though she had a million things she needed to relate, but alas, could not. Around her neck hung a piece of twine and a small bell: the bell of the slaughtered foal near Pradelles.

Louis thought he might scream, and if he did, it would be the most emasculating sound known to any man. Instead, he darted forward, tore the bell from the poor donkey, and threw it out onto the road. Modestine seemed relieved.

Over breakfast—more black bread for Modestine, more sausage and chocolate for Louis—his mind went over the entire scene again and again. It didn’t make sense. The only way that it did was that someone followed him from Pradelles and put the bell there as he slept. But who would do such a thing and why? He tried to match any faces he’d seen near here to any he might have glimpsed huddling around the poor carcass of the foal at Pradelles, but came up with nothing absolute, except the flimsy theory that the strange old man of Fouzilhic had been there and somehow managed to get ahead of him, back to his own cottage.

The dawn was now full upon them, so Louis smoked a final cigarette and readied Modestine for the continuation of their journey, wolves or no wolves; bell or no bell. They mounted the road and Louis kicked the bell off to the side as Modestine refused to cross it. A shimmer of sun fell dappled through the trees and onto their faces. With a brisk wind at their backs—and surprisingly little goading from Louis—the two struck out for Cheylard and the country beyond.

Around a close corner, Louis found the cottages of Fouzilhic, and for a moment, his courage failed him. Then he moved to pick up the pace a bit and pass by hopefully unobserved.

Jeune homme!” a frail voice called. The strange old man appeared from behind his door, his face a mass of folds pulled awkwardly in dismay. “My poor boy!”

He ran out to Louis, his palms held up to him. Louis, he realized, must have looked as if he’d pulled himself from the bottom of a river. And with his troubled sleep, he must have appeared doubly wretched. But should the old man be surprised?

“But how could this be?” the man asked, then gestured a flat palm to the road, opposite the direction Louis and Modestine now traveled. “I thought you could not go astray.”

Louis shrugged.

“Did you come upon Fouzilhac?”

“I did,” Louis began. “But no one would assist me.”

The old mans’ face turned red with anger and he grit his flat teeth.

“You knocked on all doors?”

Louis nodded, tired. The man let forth a stream of expletives in French, some of which even Louis hadn’t heard of.

“A man, a little girl, some women?”

Louis nodded again. The old man again swore.

Fils de pute!” He made a fist and shook it down the road. “Them, I should have warned you about. They scatter about this country like a plague.”

Louis asked for more information, relieved to be sure that this was indeed the family he’d been warned against, not this sweet old man. Fouzilhac, not Fouzilhic. But the old man just shook his head.

“Never mind,” he said. He gestured for Louis to stay where he was, then went into his cottage. He returned with a small cloth bundle and wearing a warm overcoat. “This time, at least,” he said, “there shall be no mistake.” And with that, the old man from Fouzilhic, limp by limp, led both Louis and Modestine down the road, past Fouzilhac—the windows and yards of which slept silent and seemingly vacant—and within sight of the town. Louis offered payment once more, but the man yelled non! and shook his clawed hands over his head. This time he smiled. He handed the bundle to Louis and they parted with a firm, but warm handshake and a peck on both cheeks. In a few minutes, Louis and Modestine would finally see the streets of Cheylard.

7.2

FM12 (7.2)

It was almost like a real room in the sense that there was a large (pink) sofa and a few (pink) beanbag chairs—these were the only chairs in the room. There was a large (pink) entertainment center, (pink) coffee and end tables. On the tables there were glass “crystals” and resin dragon sculptures. And everywhere a candle, all pink. Candles and cushions—it was amazing anyone survived here this long.

“Bill told me to bring this guy over right away,” Jesus called to her as they approached. “He’s going to be selling with me.”

Fulva put up one heavily-ringed index finger for silence. Steve Perry came skittering out of nowhere, nails catching and pulling over the cushion surface. She had one hand on her knee and the other hand was pushing one of her nostrils shut with the middle and ring finger. She took rapid in- and exhalations through the one clear nostril.

Rupert noticed a stack of books beside her, all featuring the name “D. Peterson,” with titles like Caravan of Depravity; Soap: A Prisoner-Curated Journal of the Pennsylvania Penal System; and what looked like a Japanese publication, subtitled Peen-Apple: Unexpected Phallacies in Food. There were two others facing the other direction that Rupert couldn’t read, but he felt like he knew too much about Fulva already.

* * *

Shit Pail interrupted. “I’ve read Caravan of Depravity and Koala Golem, which he didn’t write, but edited, just like Journal of the Pennsylvania Penal System, which I haven’t read, but keep meaning to.”

Rupert started at her for a moment. “Of course you have.”

“Don’t you judge me,” she said. “I’m a reader.”

“Peterson’s pretty prolific.”

“They’re long, too. You could kill a man with a single copy of Jonesin’ for a Diphthong,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think Fulva had that one,” he said, his face blank. “Or the koala one . . .”

“Then she wasn’t the Petersonian she claimed to be.”

“May I . . . ?”

“Please do.”

 

* * *

 

Fulva finished and took a deep breath in, and as she exhaled, the monkey rang a large Tibetan bell which would have been a beautiful work of craftsmanship (and cost a few thousand dollars) had it not been spray-painted pink. Fulva stretched and opened her eyes. Steve Perry ran away. Rupert watched him shit in a corner, then run back to him, sniff his shoe, look like he was about to pee on it, change his mind, then run out of the room.

Rupert thought for a moment that he was, in fact, back at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet, sleeping fitfully and dreaming badly.

Fulva had smiled but stopped abruptly.

“Jesus,” she said, stern. “Bill doesn’t get final approval on anything.” Her voice grated in Rupert’s ears and then he thought, Is that sexist? Because if she was some old dude training someone how to box, I wouldn’t think twice about it. Rupert halted his nervous inner dialog and noted a large, ugly scar across her throat as she threw her arms in the air and croaked: “Welcome to Segue-La!”

“Thank you,” Rupert whispered, compelled to respond, but preferring no one heard.

Fulva’s enthusiasm dissipated like a firecracker went off—bang, then nothing but a wisp of smoke. Unimpressed, she stated, “You breakdance, don’t you . . . ” but then cut him off before he could deny it. “You’re fucking huge.”

“Um.” Rupert left it at that. He had a list of pithy, sarcastic comebacks stored away for such occasions, but he never used them and wasn’t about to start now.

“Um,” she repeated. “Well, you seem pretty harmless.”

Rupert felt insulted. He was huge, for shit’s sake. But he kept his animosity to himself. Who am I kidding? he thought. I am harmless. And another fragment of the self-esteem that had been coming apart all his life surrendered and jumped into the sea of pink cushions. It was disappointing, but he was used to it.

“This isn’t going to end like that whole Tito debacle, is it?” She glared at Jesus.

“Absolutely not.” Jesus crossed his heart.

Rupert hoped to die.

“Alright. Jesus, tell him what needs to be done,” Fulva said looking at her long, pink, manicured nails.

“Okay,” Jesus started.

Rupert turned to him, anything to avoid having to keep looking at this woman.

“We’re low on tickets, so we’re going to start in manufacturing. We cut out balsa wood rectangles, two inches by five inches in size . . . ”

Of course, Rupert thought. Balsa wood, not two-by-fours. That Tito was stupid.

“ . . . and we spray paint them gold. Then we take a Sherpie marker and write ‘Good for one admission to Crack Planet. Cannot be combined with other offers, coupons, or promotions, unless otherwise specified by the Merchant.” That’s us.”

“That’s me,” Fulva corrected, still fascinated with her thumbnail.

“And you just stand behind Florida Fried Gator franchises and wait for Junkies to come to you,” Rupert said.

“I like to sometimes change up the fast food joint, but, yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

Rupert’s overachieving brain, with which he felt little in common, grappled with this patently inefficient practice—the making and selling of Golden Tickets to Crack Planet. He needed to figure out how to improve it. The habit annoyed him, but it couldn’t be helped. As with the anxiety, there were some things his brain did on its own, independent of his will. And in that way, he mentally left the conversation and didn’t hear Bill as he and his HPSP partner Osceola, or 32 Cent, came in, having slammed the front door behind them, jolting Fulva on her mat and causing her to growl-yell: “You fuckers, I just finished meditating. I’m relaxing and you’re fucking it up.”

Rupert wrested his brain from the problem, and it resumed making him nervous and uncomfortable as more people entered the room. It didn’t matter how big or pink the room was. In fact, the pink compounded the problem. Rupert felt a slight tremor building in the fingers of his left hand. From here he could, with an uncanny level of accuracy, time when he would ultimately have his inevitable anxiety-driven meltdown. This was similar to, but not to be mistaken for, his pipe-driven meltdown.

Osceola wasn’t what Rupert had been expecting, considering the namesake. He was a shorter-than-average, sharo-featured white guy with shoulder-length auburn hair hidden beneath a beanie with one of those trucker mud flap naked woman silhouettes on it. He wore a DIY Splatter Farm shirt with the sleeves cut off and two tattoos, one on each shoulder—a howling timber wolf on the left and a dream catcher on the right, neither prisonesque, but neither very good.

Steve Perry came tearing in out of nowhere, climbed up Osceola, which wasn’t that far to go, and perched on his head. Rupert thought about the piles of monkey shit in the corners. These two were buddies.

Bill was super twitchy and tweaky, and talking to himself. He mumbled something about the mysterious MeeMaw, and then listened for a response. Osceola then turned to Rupert and said: “So, Bill told you about our Horror Performance Slam Poetry act.”

Rupert looked down at Osceola and imagined his real name was Randy.

“He has, yes,” he answered, refraining from bending down like he’s talking to a dog, or small child.

“Nice shirt,” Osceola pointed to the line of stern, gun-toting Native Americans gathered across Rupert’s chest.

“Thanks.”

Osceola said, “You’re a mutt; what are you?”

Rupert squinted at this little shitbag for a second, but started, “Well, my mother is—” Osceola cut him off.

“One-hundred percent Apache here.” He reached up and scratched the monkey who picked a bug off either himself or Osceola and ate it. “Must be why Steve Perry here likes me so much. I’m in touch with nature; it’s an instinct. He knows, you know?”

“Lots of Apache/Monkey interaction. Back in the day,” Rupert said, nodding.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Osceola appreciated Rupert’s apparent understanding and he tried to slap him on the back, like a pal, but the distance to reach proved problematic. Rupert pretended not to notice so he wouldn’t have to embarrass both of them by leaning over.

He hoped he wouldn’t have to hear an explanation of Osceola’s tattoos, when the latter said: “I notice you’ve noticed my tats.”

Rupert involuntarily flinched. “I did, yes.” But the dreaded conversation took an unexpected turn.

“My cousin once got a bitchin’ black widow tattooed on his face—” Osceloa began.

“Once…?”

“—said it was to help him get over his fear of spiders.”

“Did it work?”

“Yeah,” Osceola sounded as if he’d never stop being impressed by this fact, “Yeah, it did, but now he’s got a fear of welding grinders.”

I’m not sure I know what that is. “Oh?”

“Yeah, my other cousin had one and offered to remove the tat.”

“That’s . . . wow.”

“Right? Who knew a tat could cure a phobia?”

Rupert wished they’d just had the conversation about his tattoos that he’d expected but didn’t want to have. The thought of having a Native American ceremonial pipe tattooed across his face flitted through his mind, then was gone as quickly as it had come. What’s a welding grinder? Rupert shuddered.

Fulva yelled, not at Osceola, but at Bill, in her gruff, old-man voice: “Bildo, we’re talking business. Get that monkey-fucking honky-Tonto out of here.”

Osceola seemed for a moment to have been offended, but then looked at Rupert and said, “Man, I’d never fuck a live monkey.”

Bill had forgotten that anyone else was in the room and was surprised out of his private conversation with MeeMaw. Rupert noticed that the dildo had made its way out of Bill’s front pocket, revealing itself to be double-ended with the words “MeeMaw’s Whackin’ Dick” written down the side. Bill rubbed it with lubricant from a container labeled “Cooncunt Oil.”

Fulva continued yelling and Bill looked somewhat shell-shocked.

“Bill, get him out of here. He’s bothering me and he’s bothering Steve Perry. Get him out of here or . . . ”

Three seconds had passed and Fulva apparently concluded that Bill was not responding as promptly as, or in a manner which, she preferred.

“Bill, you get that honky injun out of here or I’ll call upon the powers of the Whackin’ Dick and MeeMaw will come to you at night, in your dreams, and ass-ream you with every dildo you’ve ever laid your hands on.”

Bill cowered and rubbed the cooncunt oil into the dildo faster. Rupert, for a moment, thought of Leenda, and then wondered why he’d thought of Leenda, and his face flushed before he could excuse the thought as his being in a strange, stressful situation and that his mind automatically went to her for comfort. Yes. Comfort.

So, Bill had recoiled, and Osceola and Fulva were laughing when she stopped abruptly and instructed Jesus to show Rupert where the sustainable canvas shopping bags were located. In what seemed like a cosmic act of mercy, Jesus led Rupert away from the pink chamber of Capuchin monkey shit and dildonic horrors.

Beast12

Despite Benoît’s warning at the inn in Bouchet, Louis saw no alternative to staying the night in Langogne. More populated than Bouchet, he chose one of two inns, the one closest to the other side of the town, his morning departure point.

The evening was, much to his relief, uneventful. He was not accosted by members of a cultish wolf-family; he was not bothered unduly at all. Though he knew he should be throwing off his gloom and recording in his journal all the details of the town, the people, the rooms and the talk, he could only think of the foal’s black, staring eyes.

Louis ate a good, hot bowl of stew, so good he sopped the remainder with a requested extra hunk of bread. Full to the point of bursting, he donned his coat and fur hat, went outside for not one, but two cigarettes, allowing the rustic medicine in his belly to sooth the wounds of the day.

Two men joined him outside, but not too closely. Beside him, they spoke of the horrific find just outside the next town—the mutilated foal. They prattled and gossiped. Louis stubbed out his second cigarette half-smoked and forced himself to retire early on a straw-stuffed cot in a corner of a warm room. Here he scribbled away in his journal until he fell asleep, dreaming disjointed dreams that would evade his waking memory and be lost in his psyche forever.

He set out early the following day with the innkeeper’s prediction that a man could walk to Le Cheylard l’Évêque in an hour and a half. With Modestine, he guessed perhaps four hours. He breakfasted as he walked on a final piece of bread and followed it with a cigarette he sheltered in his sleeve. The weather had not improved since his crossing into Langogne the evening before, and, in fact, was significantly worse. It alternated rain and hail, and the wind never ceased, hastening every breed of cloud known to man: wispy, gauze-like wraiths; soupy, misshapen ogres; out-of-place, fluffy pillows; and jagged, black fiends that seemed to bare teeth to bite. They came and went overhead, sometimes drenching, sometimes merely shading, but on and on they went, running swiftly in the opposite direction, back from whence the two travelers came.

Once they crested the steep hill that led up and away from Langogne, the terrain changed dramatically. Gone were the fields and oxen, gone were the laborers of dirt and hay. Louis found himself in a landscape infinitely more familiar to him—a marshy wetland of heather greeted them and it worked more to lighten his mood than anything had since the previous day. It was almost as if his homeland had heard his heart breaking and sent along a message to say it would all be well. Admittedly, at home, the barren tracts of the Scottish moors had never been the most uplifting scenes, but they were home, and this was as close to home as he could be. Thin and twisted pines mingled amongst the yellowing birch and grey stones that protruded from the earth, skirted by lush grasses soon doomed to an early frost.

The way to Cheylard was as circuitous as a path could be and the multitude of interconnecting tracks this way and that did little to ease the journey. It was late in the afternoon when they passed through Sagnerousse, a tiny hamlet signaling the start of the Cheylard territory. Then, following two hours lost in a forest of fir, he emerged seemingly no closer to his destination—in marshes and amongst a tangle of paths over twisted hills—with dusk falling rapidly.

For some time, he’d been hearing the clank of cows’ bells that seemed to bounce from tree to tree within the wood he traveled, and now that he was clear of the wood, he was presented with about a dozen head of cattle. Beyond them, hard to distinguish in the gloaming, danced small, shadowy figures. Louis squinted, trying to force his vision to accomplish more than it ever could under such conditions; the limbs of the figures distorted in the murky evening, giving the devilish impression of imps. As he and Modestine passed, he could now see that these strange, unearthly beings were, in fact, children. Young herders like the girl in Bochet.

They followed each other in a circular pattern, round and round, joining hands and letting go, calling some rhyme that Louis could not make out. In any other setting, in a better light, at a more clear time of day, the dancing and playing of children would have warmed the heart and eased the adult mind. But here, on the yawning French moors, surrounded by a creeping, malevolent fog that swirled about the trees like a serpent, the vision was unsettling.

Louis felt superstition crawl slowly up his back and over his shoulder, whispering some pestilence in his ear. He shook it off and recalled that he was a reader of Herbert Spencer, refusing to fall victim to such folly. He tried to steer Modestine on, and so long as she was on a path she moved fairly forward, but once off and amid the heather, she became disoriented. Her step took on the circular course of lost travelers and if left on her own, she’d wander in circles until daybreak.

For Louis, between the dancing of the children and the circles Modestine seemed intent on tracing, the effect was dizzying. He hauled her by the bridle to right her way as much as he could see to. The children and cattle were now disbanding, save for two girls who followed him as he made his way to a collection of houses.

The first man he asked direction simply went into his abode and shut the door. The second man pointed to some vague course that led Louis nowhere and plainly watched him with amusement as he turned Modestine back to the houses in frustration. Finally, Louis turned to the two girls, who’d been standing by observing with pleasure.

“The way to Cheylard, s’il vous plait,” he said. There was a brief break in the rain and the wind lowed to a strong breeze that whistled around the dwellings.

One girl stuck her tongue out at him, and then both girls performed childish gestures that Louis could not interpret but knew could not be flattering. He sighed. The girls were blond, and yet one cultivated the thickest eyebrows Louis had ever seen on any young face, and dark as his own mustache.

“Why don’t you follow the cows?” the heavy-browed girl said, and she elbowed her companion who giggled uncontrollably.

Surely, Louis thought, La Bête du Gévaudan must have had good reason to eat so many children of this region. He turned from them as true night hung by a slender fiber over their heads.

Louis had, by this time, forgotten anything that Benoît, the man at Bouchet with the wounded wife, had warned. The immediate situation was too pressing, and he trudged on through the boggy evening, through another copse of trees, and finally onto a reasonably traveled road. Opposite the trees he found the hamlet of Fouzilhic—three houses nestled in the side of a hill covered with birch. The name itself brought the warnings from Bouchet back to him. Fouzilhic. Steer clear.

But he’d already made it through Langogne unscathed, and when he now came upon a charming old man, he knew this must not be the collection of families that harbored the infamous one unnamed. The man walked with Louis in the intermittent rain and set him securely on the road to Cheylard. When Louis insisted on rewarding him, he flatly refused, and upon being pressed on the matter, he shook his hands above his head menacingly, fingers crooked, and shrieking his rejection. Louis accepted this as some strange local convention and goaded Modestine forward after many thanks.

Despite the rain, which came harder now, Louis felt more at ease than he had all day. So long as he kept to the road, he should find himself at Cheylard in no time, drying out before a fire and sitting down to a proper meal. And then, almost all at once, night plummeted down about them. The pale of the road before him disappeared, so black was this night. The faint gleam of a rock was no longer helpful in determining the way and could have indicated a path off in any direction. Louis could not see his own hands, let alone the goad, and even less Modestine’s rump to prod, nor could he distinguish the sky from the horizon, so pitch-black was this night.

Louis shuffled along the track, Modestine’s bridle in hand, pulling her whenever she tended toward another circular course. So long as he felt gravel under his feet, he could be plausibly sure of the road, but when a sudden clump of turf claimed his toe and movement in all directions indicated a split in as many routes, Louis heaved a deep sigh and decided to let his partner chose the way. Perhaps her animal instinct would prove better than his human judgment. Certainly, his human judgment had failed, for soon she wandered aimlessly off the road and over the stony sod. She had the instincts of an ass. And now, all signs of the path had vanished, eaten up by the hungry dark.

He thought for a moment to just stop and camp, but without water to drink—though drenched to the bone—it would be an unpleasant night indeed, and so he rallied his fellow traveler and turned around, resolving to return to Fouzilhic.

Adrift and somewhat bewildered by the blind terrain—a wind that blew in all directions at once, unscalable rocky barriers, and shin-deep bogs that sent up smells worse than the filthiest gutters of Paris—Louis and Modestine pushed forward, which was now back, or so he hoped. Eventually, perseverance paid off and a scatter of warmly lighted windows appeared through the oppressive darkness.

Table of Contents

FMCarSurf

In Manalapan, Jonathan Restrepo apparently left his girlfriend’s car and decided to hitch a ride on other peoples’ cars. Several, actually, including—for a brief stint—a convertible. There’s video of this as well—he told police he was on crystal meth and was convinced he was being pursued. He was charged with public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and criminal mischief. He caused over a thousand dollars’ worth of “criminal mischief” to two cars. After his arrest, he was obviously taken to the hospital. Fun Fact: The video is no longer up, but MSN posted this under “Health and Fitness.”

Hait, Ari. “Caught on Video: Man Allegedly High On Meth Surf’s On Strangers’ Car in South Florida.” WPBF News. Hearst Television, Inc. April 30, 2015.

 

Read Florida Man: Battle of the Five Meth Labs: A Love Story here.

6

FM11 (6:7.1)

On the way to Fulva Siki’s McMansion—the official name of which, Jesus informed him as they got into the car, was Segue-La—Rupert watched a large man in a Boy Scout’s uniform in the parking lot of a different FFG location being arrested. They had stopped at a light, so he had time to consider what might have been going on, though he drew no conclusions. That’s a big Boy Scout, was his first thought. His second was not much of anything, as the light had turned green and Rupert realized the man’s scout shorts were down and his party pack flopped about like a tiny, fleshy windsock kept in place by two small, dried apricots.

Rupert looked ahead and said nothing for a few minutes, making a conscious effort to burn the image from his mind, though he feared it would visit him in the night, dangling and unwanted.

“Segue-La,” he finally said.

“Yeah.”

“Like the two-wheeled ‘personal transporter.’” Rupert made finger quotes around “personal transporter.”

“Yeah.”

“Is there an explanation for that?”

“Oh yeah,” Jesus said, and Rupert wasn’t sure he’d continued, but he did. “Remember those old Segue commercials?”

“Sure.” Rupert hummed: “Hmm hmm hm-hm, hmm hmm hmmm . . . ”

Jesus joined: “Hmm hmm hm-hm, hmm, hmm hm—wait.”

“Hmm—what?”

“That’s the ‘Rooto Rooter’ jingle.”

Rupert sang: “Roto-Rooter, baba, trouble shooter . . . ”

“ . . . and away goes troubles, down . . . ”

“ . . . the drain . . . wait, no . . . ”

“ . . . the drain . . . what?”

“That’s ‘Roto-Rooter’ by Bootsy’s Rubber Band—different song, different company,” Rupert re-corrected.

“That doesn’t sound anything like the ‘Rooto Rooter’ jingle.”

“Neither sound anything like the Segue jingle.”

They drove in silence for a moment.

“I don’t remember the Segue jingle,” Rupert finally admitted.

“Me neither.”

“Well, remember the girl in the commercials?” Jesus made a left.

“Oh wow, yeah,” Rupert said. “She had that accident . . . ”

The girl’s name was Lovely Gluptkowski. She’d been the brand face and voice of the Segue for a couple of years before the accident. The story goes, her mother had been drunk and riding the filming Segue on set of the latest commercial. Lovely had been lying on her back with her voice trainer standing on her chest—which, in hindsight, seemed like a odd technique—doing her voice exercises, when vroom. Rupert didn’t remember the medical details. Severed vocal cords, squashed larynx, something. Pretty brutal. No one had noticed at first because everyone was busy, her voice trainer had his eyes closed, and the sounds she’d been making hadn’t really changed.

“Yeah. I guess her mom pushed her into show business at a pretty young age,” Jesus explained. “She’d done some local commercials before she got the Segue gig. I think she was about twelve by then. But it was a big deal. Well, after the accident, her mother sued the shit out of Segue saying the wheels on the thing made it a death trap.”

“But . . . it doesn’t work without wheels,” Rupert said.

“Yep. Segue caved and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but I can tell you . . . it was a lot. And then her mother died a year later—rode a Segue off a cliff-side hiking path.”

“Drunk?”

“Drunk.”

“Wow.”

“Well, that’s her. The little girl,” Jesus said, making a right.

“Who?”

“Fulva.”

“But her name was Lovely Glupt—”

“She changed it to Fulva Siki, and don’t ever call her Lovely.” Jesus glanced at Rupert, quite serious.

“Good to know. Fulva Siki. What does that mean?”

Jesus stopped at a light.

“I didn’t know for the longest time, but then a few months ago I tried to find out.”

“And?”

“‘Fulva’ is Latin for ‘tawny yellow.’”

“‘Siki?’”

“Polish for ‘urine.’”

The light turned green. It was quiet for a minute or two.

“Does she know what—?”

“I don’t know, güey, but we should not bring it up. Honestly, she might know.”

Five more minutes of silence. Rupert was afraid to look at the passing scenery, leery of flopping Boy Scouts.

“Sure takes a long time to get anywhere around here,” he said. Hey, he thought. Look at me. Regular small talk.

“Yeah, everything’s pretty spread out.”

“Jesus, you don’t seem like the kind of guy who sells drugs,” Rupert said, looking at the license plate of the Lexus in front of them, which read: NOT SEE. Rupert got it as it started to pull away and frowned.

“I don’t sell drugs,” Jesus said, matter-of-fact. “Man, do I look like a drug dealer to you?”

“I just said you didn’t.”

“Oh yeah. No, man, I sell tickets. Golden Tickets to—”

“Crack Planet,” Rupert finished with him. “So, you’re more like a travel agent of sorts.”

Jesus lit up. “Yeah, man! That’s what I am.” And he smiled the rest of the way to Segue-La.

7.1

Segue-La is a cookie-cutter mansion on Bird Key, south of the Ringling Causeway and home to various celebrities such as trashy daytime talk show host Gary Springenhoffer and vocalist for the hard rock band, Inny-Outy, John Brianson. And a lot of birds, hence the name of the key. The house itself—its size morally indefensible, even to Rupert—had a Spanish-Mediterranean caramel-cream-colored stucco exterior, featuring a long, wide buffed terra-cotta walkway culminating in a crescent-shaped courtyard. Arches and the occasional portico lined both wings of the building until they met in the middle with a massive turret that acted as the front door, indicating a pretty incredible foyer. Red tile, wrought iron, and wooden beams. In the center of the courtyard stood a thirty-foot, very well cared for Nikau palm. This was a beautiful house.

“Nice,” Rupert said as they got out of the Lincoln.

“You’ve heard about not judging a book by its cover, right?” Jesus cautioned him.

“That’s a pretty mundane expression, Jesus.”

“Shut up.”

“But I was paying a compliment,” Rupert explained. “It’s a nice house.”

“I know. You’ll see.”

Rupert followed Jesus up the path and through the courtyard, past the palm, and to the turret-style front entrance. The door was bigger than your average door, which Rupert appreciated, but the large brass knocker in the middle of it—which Jesus now utilized—was in the shape of a Segue.

“Be prepared for, I don’t know . . . anything,” Jesus warned.

What? Rupert was about to say when the door swung open with a Capuchin monkey hanging from the inside doorknob. It wore a fitted, zebra-striped spandex muscle shirt, and it screeched at Rupert before swinging itself off the handle into God knows where.

“Its name is Steve Perry,” Jesus said, heaved a deep sigh, and stepped inside.

Rupert stood in the open doorway for a moment, unable to move forward. He tried to recap his day so far since landing. He remembered a precise thought that morning in DC that the worst part of the day must be the flight. The entropy was thick here—he thought he could actually smell it.

This must end, he thought. I want to go home.

On a good day if Rupert were to have left his apartment in DC, he would barely have had to interact with three people, tops. Most days. And even that would have drained him, requiring at least a few hours of wine-sipping (in moderation), and maybe a hot bath to decompress. And the three people he’d meet were, by most cultures’ social standards, pretty ordinary. There was not enough wine in Florida to . . . well, upon thinking, there was more than enough wine and anything else with which he’d want to anesthetize himself.

He didn’t even know what time it was. It felt like three years since his ill-fated visit to the FFG.

“Come in,” Jesus said, having returned for him.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Rupert said, face and mind blank.

“Come on, it’s fine.”

“No, it was fun for a . . . no, that’s not true. It was never fun. This hasn’t been fun at all. Strange, off-putting, but in no sense fun,” Rupert stared into the void of the house’s interior. “I want a Xanax. No, I need one. They are back at my room and I would appreciate it—”

“We can take care of that right here,” Jesus said. “You want a Z-bar, Cousin Jesus will find you a Z-bar.”

“Cousin?” Rupert forced his stupefied gaze to Jesus who shrugged, eased his way behind Rupert, and gave him a gentle nudge through the door.

Almost everything in the house—and by “almost,” Rupert judged it to be approximately 98%—was some shade of pink, dominated by (say 90% of that 98%) a dark fuchsia, which Rupert believed it was officially named “Fandango.” He feared he was going to have a seizure.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. No, that’s not true, that was the worst of it, but the worst was not improved by the dirty dishes strewn about, some with cigarette butts sticking suck-side up to their caked surfaces. All meals here at Segue-La looked to include some form of cheese. Where there was carpet, it hadn’t been vacuumed in many months, perhaps years. The hardwood floors were dull, scratched, and the corners and edges had accumulated enough dust to create miles of itsy-bitsy Mesa Verde-like dwellings for millions of flea-sized Pueblo peoples.

Where did that image even come from? Rupert thought. He started to sweat, thinking he had acquired an involuntary contact high from The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing) stall.

Many corners were heaped with crunchy-looking piles of Capuchin monkey shit that Rupert didn’t want to think about, but was forced to as Steve Perry ran this way and that. Rupert couldn’t tell if it was excited that there was a new person in the house, like a dog might be, or if it harbored some brain-eating virus.

So, this is what entropy smells likes—rotting food, cigarette butts, and monkey shit.

They walked through the foyer, which was stunning in a corkscrew-your-eyeballs sort of way, and moved down an equally appalling hallway, then made a right turn through an open doorway into a massive room of indiscernible purpose. It was, like all else, pink. The floor was not bare wood, nor carpet, but soft—about the size of a high school gymnasium and covered with hundreds of various-sized, loose pink cushions.

I’m going to die here, Rupert thought. Having to walk across the sea of firm-but-floppy, bean-filled, foam-filled, who-the-hell-knows-filled cushions with the legs of a man pushing seven feet in height—without tripping and falling and dying—made his throat constrict, but slowly, as if it was a warning to him: If you do not leave this place now, I will kill you myself.

“Jesus, have I mentioned to you that I suffer from a very severe case of general social anxiety—?” Rupert began.

Bróder, you didn’t have to. Look at you, man,” Jesus said.

Rupert was awash with sweat.

“Not to mention that dance you did back at The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing),” Jesus continued.

“That was not a dance—”

“Better not tell Bill that. He loves him some B-boy action,” Jesus said, but added with his hands up. “Not in a homo way, ese, no worries.”

“That’s so offensive.”

“Homo?”

“Leave me alone,” Rupert said, about to turn, but then a voice called from the other end of the room.

It sounded like Mickey, Rocky Balboa’s coach in the first film, but it issued from a petite pink-haired woman who sat in a lotus position atop a meditation mat, which sat atop a short stand, which sat atop a much larger stand, way at the other end of the room on what looked like an elevated stage, across the social-lava of the Cushion Death Sea.

“You can kick them out of the way, man,” Jesus said. “That’s what I do.”

With that, Jesus shuffled his feet under the first few cushions and flipped them up as he plowed his way forward. Rupert tried to follow his path, keeping the soles of his shoes in constant contact with the—oh God, is that? Yes—with the pink shag carpet that lay beneath.

Beast11

Pradelles, Langogne, Sagnerousse,

Fouzilhic/Fouzilhac, Cheylard, Luc,

Our Lady of the Snows

“You know nothing of men if you don’t know how they can be beasts,” Fanny said as she made tea. The apartment at Grez was small and he could hear her clearly though she was around the corner. Louis blinked his eyes slowly. The bed in which he lay was curtained off in an alcove, though the drapes were open and he wished them closed. The sun was too bright. “Nevada is where I learned to shoot, in a mining camp. My husband left me there and I learned to shoot. Because men are beasts. They are like wolves.”

            Louis could not respond. He was exhausted and too many words could potentially trigger another coughing fit, which at this point, was too agonizing to risk. And his father had taught him to not argue with the fairer sex, thought he didn’t want to argue. He wanted only to say that a man that is a beast is no man, but merely, always, only a beast.

He wanted, also, to beg her, again, to refrain from reminding him of her husband. And that he was hot, and could she please uncover his legs?

*

Louis had risen in the dark in order to do his washing up well before his fellow travelers awoke, so that the wife could perform her own morning rituals in as much privacy and leisure as the situation allowed. He fortified himself with a bowl of milk and then set off to explore the environs of Bouchet.

There was really little to it: the inn, a loose grouping of familial houses, and a narrow stone church that seemed to grow upwards rather than at all out. Unlike the heat that exacerbated his agony the day before, this dawn was wintery and grey; the clammy mist, carried swiftly by a glacial wind, sped across the streets and fields, pushing the early-rising shepherds and their flocks to their business.

Louis trotted from one point to another with his hands thrust into his pockets. The laborers stared at him—they were the same people he’d walked into town with the previous evening. Life here seemed less complicated than anything Louis had encountered, and the inspiration to stay and live out his productive years here came and went like the wind that tore at his hair. The local faces were ruddy and tough, like their hands. While Louis was in the middle of a spate of good health, he knew by experience that it would hardly last, and that a life in the field would kill him faster than any wolf in the wood.

When he returned to the inn, the hostess was up and about the kitchen and the young herdess prepared herself to take their cattle out to pasture, seemingly having gotten over last night’s trauma and no longer believing she was now the property of this strange, thin foreigner. She ignored Louis, probably angry at him for having fooled her. Her mother set a plate of hard fish and omelet—breakfast being the same as dinner in these parts—and Louis sat down for as proper a meal as could be expected.

“And where is monsieur this morning?” he asked, taming his moustache with the side of his fork.

“The master of the house is upstairs,” she said. “Making you a goad.”

The donkey goad, it seemed to Louis, was one of such incredible and useful inventions that he could not understand how he hadn’t heard of it, despite his absolute remoteness from the donkey race prior to this trip. A more simple design could not exist—a wand of local wood tipped with a metal pin about an eighth of an inch in length.

When his host emerged from the stable and put it in Louis’s hand, it transformed itself into a holy crosier, and himself an honorable prelate, ready to lead Modestine along the righteous path. Or, at least, he will poke the beast into submission until they arrive at day’s end.

Louis gathered his pack and possessions while the family with whom he’d bunked made their way downstairs and to their own repast. Before they departed, his wife and son atop a slightly sway-backed mare, Benoît handed his wife the reigns and sat with Louis for a moment on the bench beside the door. The wind still swept over every worn façade in the village, so the man’s words were likely inaudible to all but Louis, who leaned in to hear.

“You are heading south?” Benoît asked.

“I am,” Louis replied. “I intend to next camp near Cheylard l’Évêque.”

“You will do what you want, and as I said last night, I am not a superstitious man, but . . .” He glanced back at his wife, who merely gazed off in the direction of their journey, her handless arm wrapped around the belly of her son, the fingers of her remaining hand wrapped around the strip of leather. They were sinewy and strong.

“Stop at Pradelles, but do not stop at Langogne,” Benoît went on. He described the region as being downright infested with the feared family of legend and warned Louis against stopping most anywhere, particularly as he approaches his destination. There would be a handful of communes that were hardly big enough to be called anything but the shared space of a few families. He mentioned two in particular, the names of which were similar, almost twins, to be exceptionally wary of. And with that, he was gone. Louis watched the family become smaller as they made their way down the main thoroughfare and eventually veered off on one of many cattle trails that led away from Le Bouchet St. Nicolas. By the time they were gone, he had already forgotten most of what Benoît had said.

* * *

Louis made his goodbyes to his hosts and neatly hurried Modestine out of the stable and down the street, prod by prod.

The entire walk to Pradelles was lonely save the occasional convoy of women on horses and two post-runners. Louis thought he might fall asleep mid-stride, but was soon distracted by the tinkling of a bell. He looked about himself to discern the sound and beheld what but a fine looking, spindly-legged foal, the bell strung around his neck. He’d charged up from the bordering field, stopped near the traveling pair, and sniffed the air, buoyant with self-confidence. Modestine snorted without interest and Louis could only look on, smiling. The foal’s assertive manner melted sweetly into the universal timidity of a child, and the boy turned and ran back from where he’d come. Louis laughed and poked Modestine’s rump as she’d thought to slow and dine at the side of the road.

“Not until Pradelles, woman,” he said to her, still smiling. And for some time following, he would hear the bell and see, a little in the distance, the head of the foal prick up over whatever brush or hill lay between them.

Above the river Allier, surrounded by meadows, Pradelles perched along a hillside. The smell of hay permeated the air as laborers worked to slash the grass that had sprung up after the last harvest. Telegraph wires spread like a web from the distant buildings of the town, towards and past Louis, down the road on which they walked. On the opposite bank of the Allier, the terrain lifted skyward, up and up, layering over itself to the horizon. The peaks and valleys traded cyclically shade for sun, deep shadows of purple mist and low-glowing golden outcrops of stone and brush. It struck Louis, in all its sublimity, both beautiful and full of sadness, as these visions often do. There was, though, a particular stabbing point to this melancholy that needled him like the goad to the donkey, and it took him several steps to place it.

The most immediate landscape—what could be seen with the eye from the edge of the town—was completely, and deliberately, deforested. What should have leant a natural mystery to the scene was nothing more than a field of stumps and hacked verdure. Nothing was left to the imagination, and instead of the thrill of what unknown things the forest keeps, there was left only the bare and ragged eeriness of a land blighted.

Wolves.

A chill zipped up Louis’s spine like the crack of a pistol. Again, like the difference between listening to the rambling of drunken locals and witnessing the tragic deformity of a young woman, seeing the physical consequence of the fear of an entire population—the magnitude of the resulting act—brought with it a better sense of dread. Modestine stopped abruptly and sniffed the air, as if they’d both concluded the same at the very same moment, and Louis didn’t prod her with the goad. He let her process the feeling as he did.

Quite suddenly, Louis saw a figure striding a little ways up the road, just before the final rise. The skirt of his cloak danced about his ankles; surely, this was the figure Louis had spotted in the shadowy valley before Bouchet. But how did he manage to get ahead, or, if he was always ahead, how did Louis not see him until now? And with that, the figure was gone over the low crest.

There was a tinkling of the foal’s bell, and Louis looked up gratefully to see the boy looking back at them. Then, with a flourish, he kicked his hooves, knocking his round knees, and trotted off over the last hill between them and the town of Pradelles.

Louis tapped Modestine with the side of the goad, not wanting to shake her so violently and perhaps prematurely from the roadside reverie, and to his surprise, she took up the expected pace without argument. These little things adorned the day like jewels—the cooperation of a reluctant companion; the wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm of a joyful stranger, whether on two legs or four. Louis thought that, with these two things, he could lay his head down this night and still grin.

The final low crest that stood between him and a hearty lunch was a little distance—the foal had disappeared over it much faster than he and Modestine would, but indeed they would get there.

“We’re coming!” he half-shouted to the foal, who was too far to hear and too equestrian to understand. The pair continued toward the town.

The wind with which he’d begun the day at Bouchet had never let up, and the lifeless cold followed throughout the morning. Louis pulled the collar of his coat closed around his throat and made a note to unpack his fur hat after lunch when he heard a cry from just over the hill he was fast approaching.

His first instinct was to run towards it, to see if he could be of assistance. He picked up his pace a little and goaded Modestine enough to convey the urgency, and a minute or two earlier than they would have, they crested the low ridge and saw immediately a loose gathering of laborers slowly pulling together to form a knot around something on the ground. Louis let go of Modestine’s reins and she drifted slowly off to the side of the road to take up some weeds there. He ran to the group, both from curiosity and a genuine desire to help.

As he approached, he could make out some of the panicked chatter that ricocheted between them.

“But how?”

“Still warm.”

“No one saw?”

“Still fresh.”

“Is he yours?”

“Not mine. Down the way.”

“Who will tell him?”

“Not me.”

Louis pushed through the crowd as politely as he could and finally broke through to the center, which he immediately regretted.

His poor foal lay slaughtered in the yet-cut grass. His throat was savaged, his guts lay strewn, and his eyes had not yet glazed over. So recent was this attack, the blood still trickled wet a little ways from the carcass. The twine that held aloft the bell that announced the boy from the fields was embedded in the gaping wound of his neck; the bell was gone.

“How could it be so?”

“How did no one see?”

It didn’t make sense. The forest edge, that used to lie so close, was, through the work of the men of the village, now some distance off. The wolf would have had to lope across the long, bare terrain in order to make this kill.

“He is either too fast, or we are too blind,” someone said, and Louis pushed himself backwards through the group, his chin trembling. The pitiable thing had been his lively companion all morning, and now he was dead. Louis said nothing to anyone, turned, and sniffling, walked back to Modestine.

At once, he recalled the cloaked figure and very nearly injured himself, so violently he looked about the landscape. But there was no one of that description to be found, only an empty, wasted wood and fields nearly ready for winter.

A few prods and they were making their way to Pradelles, where Louis ate a light lunch, and only then because he knew he needed to in order to make decent time. He made notes for his writing hurriedly, but was back on the trail with Modestine within three-quarters of an hour, winding their steep descent along the Allier, towards Langogne.

Past field upon field, past laborers solitary and in pairs, past teams of oxen ploughing the rich soil. The wind carried alternating scents of dry straw and wet earth, the fact of which would have normally delighted Louis’s senses, but now, today, could not lift even an agreeable thought in his head. One of an ox team, his large ponderous head set firm to the yoke, turned his dark and faithful eyes towards the pair, with a look that alone from the surrounding world conveyed a message of commiseration. As if the beast knew the departed and wanted to, at least, join hearts in grief. Louis refrained from walking off into the field and embracing the enormous coffee-colored ox and merely nodded to it and continued along his way.

The highlands of Gévaudan towered before him, frowned down upon him, and for a moment, he’d almost forgotten why he was here at all. He saw Fanny’s features, but it only provoked more sorrow. He saw Colvin’s image, his friend and editor, but he feared the words he’d eventually have to write would never come. He saw the faces of his parents and they wept for him. And though his mind wasn’t in the disposition for a true and thorough contemplation, his soul began to acknowledge that he could not be out here for any other reason than to search for something larger than these small troubles that tormented him. These quandaries that, in the comfort of his own bed in Edinburgh, or even in Paris, seemed all that there was to everything, out here, with the wind tearing at his eyes and ears, with the smell of the blood of that innocent in his nose, seemed the dilemmas of someone else. As painful as this discovery was, he hoped that when he was back in more comfortable climes, he would be able to call it up, but knew that he was easily piqued and would likely fall indulgently back into another storm of self-pity and worry. And with that knowledge, he sunk deeper into despair.

Two rivers he’d have crossed in two days—the Loire and now the Allier. At the bridge coming into Langogne, the rain that had threatened them all day began to fall. A young girl of about eight stopped before the bridge as she was about to run past him and stared for a few moments before addressing him.

D’où’st-se-que vous venez?” she asked, for he must have looked strange.

“I do not know,” he answered, because, at the moment, he really wasn’t sure where he had come from, nor if he was equipped for where he was going.

Table of Contents

5.2

FM10 (5.2)

They turned into a plaza parking lot after passing fifteen identical plazas (with the exception of those bedecked with various menacing fiberglass sea creatures) and pulled into a space right in front of The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing). Rupert had had enough time to compose himself. Jesus dialed his cell phone and waited a moment.

“Yo, I got someone I want you to meet.” Pause. “I don’t know.” Pause. “I don’t know.” Pause. “You can ask.” Pause.

Jesus put his phone to his lap and sighed.

“Have you seen a movie called Splatter Farm?”

“Polonia Brothers? Yeah. It’s been a while, but—”

Jesus put his cell to his ear again.

“Yes.”

Pause. Then he hung up, said “come on,” and climbed out of the car.

Rupert’s back was sweaty, but again, the cool air inside The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing) proved that something was malfunctioning with the AC at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet. Neither Jesus nor Rupert looked like the type to shop here, but Jesus whispered: “Act natural.”

I don’t even know what that means.

It was improbable that a single item in this store would fit Rupert. Maybe a pair of socks. For one foot. But the salesman didn’t appear to notice them. Jesus looked at some expensive shirts of some NASA-like light, breathable material, then moved on. Rupert ran his hand over the material as he followed. They moved toward the back and then tried to look nonchalant as they prepared to enter the men’s restroom of The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing).

“Wait thirty seconds,” Jesus whispered before he disappeared into the restroom.

We’re going to get arrested, Rupert thought.

He waited.

. . . twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty . . .

The bathroom was too bright, brighter than any room designed for the disposal of human waste should be. There were four stalls, the third door closed.

“Welcome to SIKildo Industries,” Jesus whispered.

“Sounds impressive,” Rupert leaned down and whispered back. “Why are we in a retail bathroom?”

Then the stink hit him. The foundation was a hospital smell, but Rupert couldn’t tell if that was the bathroom’s regular aroma, or if it came from the third stall, as a thin, brownish plume blossomed up to the ceiling from inside. That did not look like a good thing. The identifiable odors were that of wet diaper, fertilizer (or perhaps someone had recently used another stall), paint remover, cat piss, and a fermentation process. Submerged way beneath was a faint citrus scent. Just then Rupert jumped at the sudden, loud hiss of aerosol spritzing the air by his head. It was the store’s effort to make their bathroom smell not quite so much like urine and excrement. And whatever the hell was happening in Stall Number Three.

Jesus tapped on the door. Inside the stall, someone jumped and knocked something over. A bottle of Drainü drain cleaner rolled out and Jesus picked it up between his thumb and forefinger, trying to avoid touching whatever might have been coating it.

The latch clicked back and forth a few times, as if it was difficult to open, then Jesus pushed in. It was a tight squeeze, and Rupert and Jesus fought with the door for a moment before they were able to close it again. A man with his back to them said: “Lock it.”

Rupert was closest so he did. It clicked over without a problem.

“Hang on,” the man said. He wore saggy jeans, with blinding-white sneakers and a white t-shirt that looked three sizes too big. On the back of the toilet was what looked like a self-contained Bunsen burner on which a glass beaker boiled some pungent liquid. He stirred it. Surrounding that were bottles of things Rupert was pretty sure shouldn’t be anywhere near a flame.

Jesus didn’t look nervous, so Rupert tried also to not look nervous. Being nervous was different. It wasn’t so much the possibility of being set on fire in a men’s restroom as it was being squashed into a small, enclosed space with two other people. And potential explosives. Rupert was so tall he could see into the stalls on either side of them.

“So,” the man said as he turned around. He had a long, horse-like face and dark, unruly hair that looked factory-made, although Rupert could see that it did indeed sprout from his scalp. It looked wet, but wasn’t. He had a large scar across his forehead. His shirt had a big red and black, pointy cartoon explosion that took up most of it with “WHACKOUT!” printed diagonally in the middle. Rupert had seen the brand before. And he might have missed the next thing had the guy not said: “Who wants to burn?”

Rupert’s eyes went straight to the glass pipe in the man’s hand. In the other was a small torch-like lighter, but it was the pipe that made Rupert’s mind submerge into a land of pistachio and cream, of the pulsating sound of chanting natives, and the sensation of being surrounded by a thousand shuffling, stepping, kicking feet; plaid and fondu. His throat closed and Rupert slid down the corner joining the door to the stall. The door rattled back and forth, and he heard Jesus in the distance say: “Chále!” Rupert gasped. It was beyond him to do anything but sink and then his mind focused on taking a breath, as by now, his lungs had decided to take the predictable long break on the exhale.

“What the fuck, dude,” the guy said, more statement than question.

Rupert squirmed, legs straddling the toilet, shaking the little box lab the guy had set up. Soon, he pounded his chest open-handed, his usual last-ditch effort to get his lungs to work.

Jesus tried to act casual.

“I’m thinking he’s a salesman.”

The guy looked at Jesus as Rupert struggled for air. Behind Rupert’s eyes was all pistachio- and cream-colored swirls, growing darker, darker, the chanting receding with it. This was always the scariest time, because Rupert’s biggest fear was to pass out like this, afraid he’d never start breathing again. He’d never wake up.

The guy now stared down at Rupert and took a long, slow hit off the pipe.

“I don’t know, MeeMaw,” he said, smoke escaping his mouth and nose.

A tiny, wheezing voice deep in the back of Rupert’s mind asked, Did he just call Jesus “MeeMaw?

“He needs to work on his spin, but I appreciate a fellow B-boy throwin’ down like that.”

The guy leaned down to Rupert and yelled like he thought Rupert was deaf: “This place is too small. But it’s cool.” He straightened up and looked at Jesus. “Yeah, it’s cool.”

When Rupert thought he might be turning blue, and the chants and colors had gone dim, his lungs curtly—just like that—kicked into gear and he sucked in a huge, desperate dose of oxygen and the vestiges of the secondhand smoke.

Jesus helped Rupert up and the guy had turned back around, managing his cooking, the pipe stashed somewhere out of sight. Rupert noticed now that the man in front of him, in such close proximity, had what looked to be an 18-inch sparkle-pink, semi-transparent dildo sticking out of his front pocket. He wasn’t sure how he hadn’t seen it right away upon entering the stall. There was something written on it in Sherpie marker, but Rupert couldn’t read it, his eyesight still a bit blurry from the attack. His breathing, though, was returning to normal.

“This, Rupert, is Bill,” Jesus says. “Bill, mi pana, Rupert.”

“Rupie,” Bill said, extending a filthy cooking hand, but Rupert didn’t feel in a position to refuse. He avoided the flopping dildo and shook Bill’s hand.

“Hi. How are you?” Rupert’s hands were sweaty now, not from the attack but from this whole experience compounded by the customary trauma of meeting someone new and completely unrelatable.

“How am I, brother?” Bill asked. “How am I?”

Bill then launched into a shambolic salad of words and rhymes:

One, two, three and to the fo’
Kanye Herbert West and Tree-Two Cent is at the do’
Ready to tell the story ‘bout Splatter Farm
(Despite Cent’s shattered arm)

“Shattered . . .” Rupert interrupted.

“This is a rhyme from last year, yo, shortly after Fulva busted Osceola’s arm.”

“Ah . . .” Rupert had no idea who Osceola was.

“Fine now.”

“Mmm.”

Gimme the mic first, so I can start with Aunt Lacey
Alan and Joseph goin’ to see her, and you know she be cracy
Ain’t nothin’ but hicks in the farmland!
Old Bag Lacey and the farmhand!
Skull fuckin’, horse killin’ in the heartland!
Don’t interrupt me or you’ll dis-a-rupt my lymph gland (Hell yeah)

“Whoa, don’t want that.”

Bill just looked at Rupert—he’d interrupted. Again.

Concerned for Bill’s one lymph gland, Rupert motioned for him to continue.

But uh, back to the tale we’re tellin’
Al and Joe be talkin’ on the way to Auntie’s dwellin’
Joseph says Lacey thinks Alan’s lit
but they gotta get there quick, he’s gotta take a shit

You never know she could be druggin’ her man
And huggin’ her man, next thing you know she’s fuggin’ her man

Now you know Alan ain’t with that incest shit
(Till she serve him up that cuppa with the roofie innit)
(Yeah) but we’re getting ahead of how it goes
And now we gotta get back into the flow
before we get to the pitchforks and the fistin’
and the golden showers, yeah, you just keep listenin’

It’s like this and like that and like this and uh
It’s like that and like this and like that and uh
It’s like this and like that and like this and uh

            Bill tapered off, smiling. Rupert was transfixed in a sort of stunned silence until Jesus moved his foot over Rupert’s and pressed down hard. Rupert hardly felt it.

“Wow,” Rupert managed to get out. “Just . . . wow.”

“Right, Rupie,” Bill said. “I’ll put the kibosh there, since it better when Cent is up in it. I was doin’ both parts, ya see . . .” He was so self-satisfied that Rupert felt sorry for him.

“Who’s Dre and who’s Snoop?” Rupert asked despite himself.

“I’m Dre,” Bill said as if it were obvious. “My stage name is Kanye Herbert West. When I’m not cookin’ for Fulva, I’m rappin’ with my homie, Osceola.”

“Osceola, the primary chief of the Seminole tribe, a branch of the Creek, who lead an organized resistance against the American Government in 1836?”

Both Bill and Jesus stared at him.

“I guess not?” Rupert said, and smiled his apology for knowing things. “Is Osceola his stage name?”

“No,” Bill answered. “It’s 32 Cent.”

A moment of silence.

“We do HPSP—Horror Performance Slam Poetry; you heard of it?” Bill continued unfazed.

“I don’t think so.”

“But you seen Splatter Farm.”

“I have, a very long time ag—”

“This year, Kanye Herbert West and 32 Cent are curating a new exhibit. We’ve adapted the Polonia masterpiece to the dope-ass melodious odyssey that is Dre and Snoop’s ‘G-Thang’.”

“As in, Nuthin’ but a . . .” What is happening to me? Rupert had hit a threshold of improbability for, not so much the day, maybe, but at least since he’d walked into this store.

Bill nodded approvingly and Rupert fell yet again into stupefied taciturnity.

He felt Jesus’s foot on his toes and he laughed. He laughed and laughed. He laughed so hard he snorted, and then he stopped, feeling slightly exorcised.

“Is that legal? Copyright and all . . .” Rupert asked, not joking.

Bill slapped his own knee to indicate something funny had been said.

When he recovered: “We perform all over Sarasota County. Soon, though. Big time. Fulva manages us, and she’s pretty smart for a hippy.”

Jesus looked at his own feet.

“She pisses me off sometimes.” Bill went on, “like that time she shut down that one show. Jesus, you remember that?”

Jesus conjured an emphatic, but measured nod that said, and it was a shame, too, because that was a good goddamn show.

“Man, there was almost a riot,” Bill said, excited. His glassy eyes got both brighter and glassier. “The people went crazy. Not like I haven’t been in that situation before. Fulva said it was because Osceola was handing out coke to the mob, but I know it was my crunk-ass rhymes.” Bill rubbed the scar on his forehead to draw attention to it, and then he waited, but Rupert was quick.

“Whoa, wow,” he said. “Did you get that in a riot?”

“A riot? Naw, man, in a regular fight. Gang fight.”

“I’m sure the other guy came out much worse,” Rupert added.

“Well, what can I say? You don’t mess with K. H. West, naw’ mean?”

Rupert couldn’t help but notice how white Bill was, virtually bluish in this regrettable light.

Someone walked into the restroom, paused, and went into the stall furthest from Bill’s methamphetamine stink box. Bill and Jesus were nonplussed, so Rupert tried to follow their lead despite the fact that he could see directly into the now-occupied stall. He turned his head in the opposite direction, not concerned with being recognized now—he didn’t know anyone here—but perhaps with being recognized at a later date. Laws were clearly being broken here. The occupied stall was quiet, and an unspoken rule had gone into effect decreeing that there should be no talking until the interloper had left. Then, the smell of whatever silent holocaust evacuated the intruder’s bowels made it to their stall, and with no sound to accompany it, Bill’s horse face twisted, K. H. Westese for: No, he did not.

Not for the first time in the last fifteen minutes, Rupert wanted to be out of this stall, this bathroom, this store, this city, this state, this country if he could swing it. It occurred to him that he had—just moments ago—spent a good three-to-four minutes doing a simultaneous slowed-down/sped-up horizontal version of the Watutsi straddling a toilet on a men’s room floor. He hated everything.

Finally, the intruder, abandoning his stench for the benefit of those remaining, left and they were free to speak again.

“Maybe we get down to business, eh Bill?”

Bill looked at Jesus for a moment as if he either didn’t know what he was talking about, or maybe he didn’t know where he was, but then replied.

“Right. Crack Planet. Free crack.” Bill turned, looked up at Rupert, and yelled, “FREE FUCKIN’ CRACK!” And then he laughed and bounced twice on his toes. “I can’t believe they fall for that shit. Whatever, man. Gets us that Crack Planet long green.”

Who says “long green?” Rupert thought.

“Okay,” Bill said to Rupert. “You know the game? Jesus filled you in?”

Rupert nodded. Then Bill held up his index finger to Rupert and tilted his head to one side, as if listening. Bill’s other hand slid over the dildo in his pocket. Jesus shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“Okay. Okay, MeeMaw,” Bill said, hand gripping the dildo.

Rupert still couldn’t read the Sherpie on it.

Then: “Jesus, MeeMaw says to take Rupie here to meet Fulva. Right now.”

Fuck, Rupert thought. He wanted to go back to the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet and take a shower. He’d had enough for one day.