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Beast16

Brothers in the garden came and went. Three took their prayers on the terrace, a few tended the browning vegetation, which Louis could see must have bloomed beautifully in the spring and summer months. Others walked alone or in pairs, all in silence. The monastery and garden sat in its hallowed valley between two hills; on one side, the slope ascended nakedly, and on the other, a blue carpet of firs. The atmosphere, though not as sterile as he’d feared, still felt ultimately lifeless, for life was more than quiet contemplation. Life was action. It was more than the bare contours of a rocky terrain; it was the sun warming the needles of the pine and sending its scent up to heaven. It was the comforting shade beneath the boughs. It must be more than this.

Louis sat on a bench looking at his hands. His wrists were slight, his fingers thin, with two gold bands on the left—one on his ring finger, the other on the index. The tips and cuticles of his right were ink stained, the knot of his middle finger pronounced. He examined them because he didn’t know where else to look, being surrounded by people, but not really, as it felt a veil had been drawn between him and them. It was not quite dusk yet, but the light took on that affected golden tone that murmured the coming of night.

Finally, a brother approached. He had so quickly blended back in with his brethren, Louis didn’t know the monk until he was practically upon him. Brother Porter made a slight hand gesture to Louis and smiled. Louis followed him.

He was taken to the part of the building reserved for messieurs les retraitants and to a compact cell that was, like the outside, whitewashed and clean, and sparsely furnished, as he’d expected. Brother Porter humbly received Louis’s thanks and departed. There was a cot, a crucifix on the wall, and a bust of the Pope on the windowsill. Next to the cot was a tiny nightstand, upon which was stacked a book of religious meditations, Kempis’s De Imitatione Christi, and a copy of the Life of Elizabeth Seton. Above the stand were instructions for the visitor, a schedule of prayers, and whatnot. Attached, a note that read: “Free time is used for examining the conscience, for confession, and for making good resolutions.”

Yes, it is, thought Louis, and indeed, all the world really was his own monastic cell.

He spread his sack double over the cot, for a moment feeling guilty and sure no one else in the building would be as warm. They were, though, living this life by choice, whereas he was merely passing through. He set his knapsack—full of his other effects—by the bed and then crept stealthily out the door to explore his surroundings.

This more public section of the building was nearest the gate through which he and Modestine had entered. There was a dining room on the ground floor, in addition to another corridor leading to more visitors’ cells. The adventure was briefer than he’d expected, as there really wasn’t anything exciting or complicated about this place. It made sense, he supposed. The fewer distractions, the closer the mind gets to God, and so follows the spirit.

He lingered in the halls for another ten minutes or so, walking the length and back again, listening. Small noises met his ear amidst the ambient silence—the shuffling of a page, the slight clearing of a throat. So, he wasn’t alone in this part of the monastery. This gave him a sense of relief, as he felt he’d never be able to sleep, entombed as he’d be in this empty honeycomb of rooms. After a few more minutes, no one emerged from any room and Louis’s hopes to find conversation diminished enough to send him back to his own cell, and take up the Life of Elizabeth Seton. With that—boring words on dreary paper, revealing the dull life of this American Catholic convert-turned-Saint—he fell asleep and dreamt disjointedly of friars and firs, of donkeys and dormitories.

When he awoke, it was hard on sunset and his stomach growled angrily. He opened his eyes just in time to watch the last sliver of golden light fade and turn the air blue with evening. He heard a door open and then close, but softly, as though the occupant was an elephant fumbling through the wine cabinet in search of a fluted glass.

* * *

The monastery kitchen, despite being as new as the rest of the building, felt more rustic than anything Louis had seen here so far. The walls were still white, and the tables and cabinets bore only the small scars of the last forty years, but the bowls and utensils—the most intimate objects relating to food—were wooden and pocked with age. There was a large brick oven built into the wall that operated like any rural fireplace, except in that you didn’t have to bend over as much. Long-handled ladles hung beside it; a number of hefty iron pots stacked on the floor. One nestled in the oven over a fire, steaming up the mouth-watering smells of a monkish soup—the best soup in the world.

When Louis entered the kitchen, there was one man sitting with a bowl in front of him, and another man—a religious man—filling his own. There were three lamps—one by the door, one on the table, and one by the oven—that threw three yellow rings of light that connected just around their edges. The rest of the room was in darkness.

Bonsoir,” Louis said quietly. “May I join you?”

The two men looked at him strangely.

“Of course,” said the religious man, as he sat down opposite the other man with his soup.

Louis knew he was religious because he wore a habit, although it was different from the robes of Our Lady of the Snows. It was brown, like sack cloth, only much heavier.

“I am Father Carthage,” he said. “And this is Brother Roland.”

Brother Roland nodded to Louis. He was a short, stocky man of perhaps fifty, with a grizzled peasant’s face. Although Father Carthage called him Brother, he wore a tweed suit with a red ribbon knotted in the top buttonhole, signifying that while he may be a religious novice now, he was, at some point, and still is, proud of having been a soldier.

Louis filled a bowl with the soup that was more of a stew. Although prepared entirely with vegetables, it was so thick with them, and of such variety, that it nearly tasted meaty.

As they ate, Louis learned that Father Carthage was a parish priest on holiday—he’d walked over that morning from Mende for a handful of days dedicated to seclusion and meditation. He complained of the trouble he’d had with his skirts over the rocky paths and grumbled that he would have to have a talk with the Sisters who did the hemming. Brother Roland was, as Louis suspected, an old soldier, who, immediately upon his discharge from a lengthy military career, sequestered himself to this religious life. He found, though, that no matter how calm his disposition became, the soldier in him was not easily quelled. Eventually, he had to conclude that his taking the robes was never meant to be, but that God had led him here for a reason, and therefore he would exist straddling that line, between soldier and monk.

Louis explained who he was and why he was there. The men nodded, seemingly disinterested, which struck Louis as odd. The priest kept glancing down at the hem of his robes and shaking them, as if the mud of the morning’s walk had still not come off completely. The soldier only sat bolt upright and spooned the stew into his mouth, elbow stiffly out. His bowl was empty in about ten seconds. He wiped his mouth and then retrieved another helping, which he readily dispatched as quickly as the first.

Louis dipped a piece of what might have been the most delicious bread he’d ever eaten—soft, but dense, with a nutty country flavor and a consistency that gave the impression of flying straight from the millstone to the oven. He was about to resign himself to the fact that conversation would never come. As with the four Frenchman at Monastier, Louis longed to relax into the charming conversationalist his friends knew him to be. He swore his muscles itched to fling him this way and that, to act out what news of the day happened upon topic, to flap his hands in the face of his audience to drive home whatever salient and belief-altering piece of philosophy he espoused. He missed his friends. But he’d just have to satisfy himself with this fine meal and be off to bed, when the soldier finally spoke.

“It is a shame about Mac-Mahon,” he said, and folded his napkin, placing it beside his empty bowl.

It was a start.

And from there, the three men launched into a dialogue that would fairly cover all aspects of contemporary French politics and last about an hour, until Louis inevitably made his fatal mistake.

“But at least Gambetta has acted in moderation,” Louis said, rubbing the now-dry bottom of his bowl with the edge of his spoon. This was worse than no conversation at all and he sought grounds to excuse himself.

It was as if the temperature in the room had dropped. Louis looked up to see perhaps that someone had walked through the door and caused both the chill and the silence. But the two men merely stared holes into Louis’s forehead. He traced his mistake and knew immediately—although Gambetta was politically moderate, and even kept Mac-Mahon from losing power sooner than he did, he was also a well-known anti-cleric. It made sense that it slipped Louis’s mind.

Comment, monsieur?” the old soldier finally exploded and he sprang from his seat. “Comment? Gambetta a moderate? Will you dare justify these words?”

The man’s anger shook the walls of the little kitchen and Louis cringed involuntarily, but as he was about to rally himself for a defense, the priest set his hand on Roland’s arm. The soldier looked at him and was thus reminded of where he was, and who he was trying to become. Brother Roland took a deep breath, composed himself by running his palms down the breast of his suit, inadvertently flicking the red ribbon as he did, and sat down. He didn’t look at Louis. And when Louis opened his mouth to explain, Father Carthage held up his hand to stop him. The priest gave him a look as if to say, he will not hear you; wait until he is truly calm. Louis nodded his assent.

It was an argument, but infinitely more interesting than the conversational route they had been on.

After a few minutes, the soldier, who seemed as if he’d spent that time meditating fruitfully and was entirely composed, spoke.

“And are you even of the true faith?” he asked Louis.

Louis sighed deeply and then watched Father Carthage’s face collapse slowly as the silence before Louis’s answer lengthened, clearly indicating that it would not be to the holy man’s liking. Louis stared at the bottom of his bowl, as if scrying the wood for a way out. Finally, the priest reached out and patted Louis on the shoulder.

“Well,” he said simply.

Louis was already thanking the stars for the forgiveness he was about to receive.

“Well,” the priest repeated. “You must simply be a Catholic, and come to heaven.”

And so went a defense, infuriating to commence, not simply of politics, but of personal faith. When Louis professed the faith of his countrymen, the priest answered:

“And you mean to die holding that sort of belief?”

When Louis fell to the justification of his parents, the priest answered:

“Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.”

No motive, no matter the impetus, was any match for the holy man’s vindication. All mens’ faiths—apart from his own—were malleable, and once transformed, it could be spread to those equally pliable. Brother Roland sat with his palms now flat on the table before him, looking at Louis’s rings.

“No,” Louis said, finally. “I have no intention of changing.”

“But you must,” Father Carthage pressed. “God has led you here and you must embrace the opportunity.”

Table of Contents

9.2

FM15 (9.2:10.1)

When they had returned to Segue-La, they found Bill screaming into his cell phone. Rupert offered to put her can of vegetables away, to which she nodded her ascent without looking at him, making it clear that their equal social time was over. He heaved a relieved sigh.

From the kitchen, he could hear Bill.

“Do you guys know anything about what’s going on with the Virtual Murder Station network? . . . the VMS4 and VBOV network being down. Don’t transfer me again. It’s been down for four days. I heard they arrested two people so fa—What do you mean it’s not an emergency? What the fuck else is 911 for? . . . go outside? . . . I don’t read books, lady, Congressman what’s-his-face said they make you gay.” Pause. “Not books? Just standardized testing…?”

Bill hung up, frustrated. Rupert heard the sound of a beanbag being kicked and thought: At least it wasn’t Steve Perry. Then it hit him that Bill had called 911 because his VMS4 wasn’t working.

He was pretty sure that was illegal. Or something.

10.1

Fulva dropped Rupert off at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet, waited an awkward and excruciating amount of time expecting to be invited in, snorted in exasperation, then sped off angrily when he’d yawned, stretched, and said: “Boy, is it late.” It was 8:30pm.

As he walked into the building and past the front desk, he and Angel made eye contact. She beamed an exaggerated smile at him until he crossed the lobby and entered the corridor for his room. He thought maybe it had gotten colder and darker since the afternoon, if that was possible. When he got into his room, he basked in the warmth from the heater he’d turned on before he’d left for his hapless trip to Florida Fried Gator. His stomach growled and he told it to fuck itself—he was done for the day.

A green light flashed on the corded motel phone that sat on the nightstand between the two Queen beds. Rupert picked up the receiver and pressed the retrieve message button. After a few beeps and other noises he didn’t recognize as normal, there was Leenda’s voice.

“Hey Rupert, it’s Leenda. I asked Pyrdewy for your number, I hope you don’t mind. He told me to keep your ass in line. I’m not sure he was joking.” She laughed too loud. Stanley was right, but Rupert thought it was endearing, despite having to pull the receiver away from his ear.

“Anyway, I’m just checking up, wondering how you were settling in. I know you just got in today and haven’t done much, but, well, yeah. Oh hey! I might get a gig down there soon. A burial mound. Close to where you are, I think. That’d be cool, huh? We could get dinner.”

Rupert felt fluttery for a moment. He couldn’t quite tell if it was Leenda or the fact that he was starving. Perhaps his blood sugar was plummeting. That seemed most likely.

“Okay, hopefully I’ll talk to you soon. Or, you could give me a call. Whatever.”

She left her number and Rupert played the message back again. Then he listened to it five more times, but he didn’t write down the number. He knew he wouldn’t call her back; he didn’t have the balls. He did, though, have the balls and other accouterments to masturbate thinking about her. He also knew how to strip an electric clock or other small appliance to get a low-level jolt, but he was too tired to bother, and he needed the one on the nightstand for an alarm.

When he finished, he enjoyed a brief moment of peace before the guilt and irritation set in.

Rupert sighed and lay there on the bed, limp in his own mess, mind blank. They say the state of entropy was at its lowest and slowest rate immediately following the Big Bang, is at its fastest and highest rate around the phenomenon of black holes, and, theory holds, would return to a slower, lower rate upon the Big Crunch, when the Universe has expanded to such an extent that it collapses in on itself and starts anew. This dictated Rupert’s personal theory of intimate, physical human relationships, which, despite his age, and due to his anxiety, remained predominantly untested. At least, not tested under ideal circumstances.

Rupert’s day-to-day baseline state resembled that of a black hole and the longer he stayed in that state, the further and faster his health and general emotional wellbeing declined, whereas in the direct aftermath of climaxing—his own personal Big Bang—this deterioration exhibited a noticeable decrease, for a moment. This meant that Rupert jerked off as often as possible, not necessarily from an addiction to the sensation, but because of this theory. Furthermore, while the Big Bang was exemplified in the orgasm, mutual intercourse—combined, synchronized orgasm with a partner, preferably one that was dear to you—was embodied by the Big Crunch, that colossal expansion, and ultimate collapse into a shared zero space, thus recreating the Universe, or, to be more accurate, creating a new one—a cosmic Adam and Eve whose offspring was nothing but themselves sharing the same expanse of nothingness, a joint pinpoint of nil, Rupert’s definition of Humanity. The result of this common explosion—the anticipation and, indeed, struggle to achieve the Big Crunch between two persons—is, again, a slowing of entropy; not positive order, but a decelerating of the inevitable disorder.

Rupert wasn’t sure he believed in negentropy, but he hoped that the inescapable descent into his own individual chaos could, at the very least, be put off a bit longer. This sounded to him both enormously romantic and decidedly self-serving, but then, he wasn’t sure how to separate the two, nor that it should be separated. What could be more self-serving than to love the one that loves you best?

Rupert used to use this brief, static period of peace between entropy and negentropy to consider this very theory, but hadn’t in a long while. Today, he did. He didn’t think it was an original theory, but he believed, in reality, it applied to him; he practiced it and pinned his hopes on it.

Then, in the predictable guilt-irritation phase, he started to doze, which was when he did his best scheming. He thought about the Crack Planet gig. What was he doing? He was going to start selling tickets to Crack Planet. And this got him closer to integrating with Methheads how? Well, Bill and Osceola were without a doubt Methheads. Maybe Fulva, but she was almost functional. Jesus seemed clean, which Rupert was thankful for. He’d only been here for a day. It felt like a week—he was exhausted, but then being around people, strangers in particular—strange strangers at that—exhausted him. He needed to relax.

He cleaned himself up and put himself away, then lay down again. Deep breathing. Focused on the breath. In. Out. In. Out. Meditate. Meditate.

Three minutes later he had a complete selling and marketing plan for the SIKildo Crack Planet Travel Agency, a subsidiary of SIKildo Industries.

Then the phone rang next to his head and he instinctively rolled off the bed, hitting the floor with a 235-pound thump.

“Fuck.”

Maybe it was Leenda again. He pushed through his initial reaction to let it ring and scrambled back over the bed, placing his knee in a cold, wet spot he’d missed during clean-up.

“Fuck.”

He slammed his hand down onto the receiver, then paused. One big, deep breath . . . and release. He picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Rupe.” Pyrdewy.

“Fuck.”

“What? Report.”

“Report? I just got here.”

“You’ve been there for hours. What the hell are you doing on the Spliphsonian dime?” Pyrdewy’s voice was more irritating through a thousand miles of wire.

“Well . . . well . . . actually, Mr. Pyrdewy . . . ” Rupert stammered.

“Well, what, Rupe? Spit it out.”

Rupert proceeded to explain his day after having arrived at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet, leaving out the too-weird parts, which meant it took about fifteen words, total.

“Golden fucking tickets? Crack Planet? What the fuck are you doing?”

Rupert thought the director of a prestigious museum swore a lot more than he’d have expected.

“Leave that shit alone and do your fucking job, if you still want to keep your job. The mop and bucket await you, bucko.”

Bucko? Is that racist? No, I don’t think s—

“Yes, Mr. Pyrdewy.” Rupert should have stressed how tweaked out these people were. Next time. He was about to say something else but realized Pyrdewy had ended the phone call. Before hanging up himself, Rupert heard a weird double-click, which he thought was odd, but it had been an odd day, so he dismissed it.

Do his job. The thought of infiltrating some big meth operation made him feel sick. Like, throw-up sick. And somehow, he felt like he was on the right track with these people.

It had become clear throughout the day that among this community of low-rent meth royalty, he was downright normal, something he’d never felt in any kind of social or professional situation. He decided to follow through with it and see where it went, if he could hold Pyrdewy off for a little bit. Besides, he had a business plan, and being very self-reflective, Rupert knew this approach would fulfill his psychological need to appear not just competent, not only possessing a level of social prowess, but launching straight into upward social mobility. He’d start with the competency. He held onto it like a life preserver.

Rupert looked at the red digital clock on the entertainment center next to a television he would never use. 9:06pm. He had time. He dug through his duffle bag for his laptop, some writing tablets, anything he’d need to get this down. He sat at the tiny table and went to work. Two hours and a daunting three-block walk to the Konko’s Kopy Kenter later—Rupert tried to explain to the employee why the “Kenter” didn’t work, but he didn’t get it and exhibited an off-putting emotional attachment to the KKK logo—he had some charts, some graphs, enough handouts for everyone. And then he went to bed.

As he turned out the light, the phone rang.

“Fuck.” He answered it. “What?”

“Nighty night, ese.” Jesus laughed.

“How did you even get this number?”

“I can’t believe you don’t have a cell phone, bro.”

Rupert hated the phone, corded or otherwise. He hated calling and being called, hated talking on it without the benefit of facial expressions and gestures to interpret what the hell other people wanted from you.

“I called the front desk,” Jesus explained. “You’re, like, one of three people staying there.”

Rupert sighed. “What?”

“Picking you up at 8:00 am. Be ready.”

“What, to sell tickets?”

“Crackheads get up as early as their hunger wakes them, and that can be very early indeed.”

“Yeah, but we can’t do that first thing. We need to go back to Segue-La. I have a plan.”

“A plan.”

“It’s awesome. They’ll love it.”

“It better be and they’d better love it, or Fulva’s gonna be pissed we lost selling time. The thirst monsters are thirstiest when they first come to.”

“It’ll be good,” Rupert said, a sliver of doubt snaking its way around his lumbar vertebrae and threatening to climb.

Muy-mucho groovy,” Jesus said. “Goodnight.”

As Rupert hung up, it occurred to him that he was nervous about giving a marketing presentation to a bunch of drug addicts who had a monkey named Steve Perry, carried around a rubber “whackin’ dick,” and whose favorite film appeared to be the Polonia Brothers’ Splatter Farm.

That was some bleak shit.

Table of Contents

Beast15

The town of Luc lay just between the hills of Gévaudan and Vivarais. As Louis and Modestine, leaving Luc the following morning, made their way up the valley he paused to consider the border. Gévaudan was plainer, whereas Vivarais embraced more underwood, but both were mapped with patches of dark fir, broken up now and then with tended fields. A section of railroad track ran alongside the river, gleaming and new atop its clean ballast bed, its sleepers dark and ready for the weight. It was the only section of track in Gévaudan, but soon, Louis thought, the French would be speeding all over their fair country, just like in America. Or so he’d heard.

At La Bastide, Louis was directed by a bent peasant to leave the river and head into the hills of Vivarais via a road. Their intended destination: Our Lady of the Snows, a Trappist monastery. Compared to some of the crumbling fortresses he’d passed—and even some of the inns in which he slept—this place was of fairly new construct, having been built in 1850. Louis anticipated, though, an atmosphere older than time. The name of the strict Cistercian order derives from La Trappe Abbey, an abbey in Normandy; the order itself is the product of reform in 1660s as a reaction to the perceived lax practices of the Cistercian monasteries at the time. The monks follow the rule of Saint Benedict, adhering to the three vows: stability, fidelity to religious life, and obedience. Further, Louis had heard they practiced a strict vow of silence.

Again, his Protestant blood stirred, though chilled now instead of hot. There was, in Louis’s mind, something unnatural to discounting a man’s speech, for surely, these robed men—more than anyone—must have something useful to say.

The pair made their way along the road through a dark, piney wood, cool in the morning air, and upon emerging into a new valley, the sun dazzled their eyes and warmed their skin. All was heaven—the craggy rock shone blue through rise after rise of heather, twisting trunks stretched their limbs modestly throughout the hollows. Louis stood there for a few minutes, breathing deeply and letting the sun’s heat play on his face until his skin tingled. Modestine munched on something by the path. All around was pure nature, unbridled and rampaging wildly about him, a well-worn path the only sign of man.

Or he thought, until he noticed that each hilltop was marked with a spindly little cross, each calling attention to its corresponding religious house. About a quarter-mile away, a large statue of the Virgin, gleaming white, stood beckoning at the corner of a recently cultivated field. This, Louis thought, must be the post that pointed his way.

As they drew closer, the breeze brought with it the sound of a bell, causing both travelers to freeze. For a flash, Louis could swear it was the tinkling of the dead foal’s little bell, but as the wind came again, another toll—it was not the light chime he now so dreadfully associated with bloody death, but the clanging of the monastery’s signal. They continued, but he couldn’t shake this foreboding feeling. Turning past the statue of Mary, not nearly as large as she seemed from the ridge, Louis’s heart sank with each step. If he was honest with himself, he wasn’t looking forward to his stay at Our Lady of the Snows—all the silent countenances, the shadowy corridors, the oppressive miasma of incense and wax that must certainly inundate all within the white walls. It was as if, upon entering the prison—for it seemed like one—he would essentially be damning any possibility that he would pull himself from this general malaise before he reached Alès.

Now it was Louis’s turn to drag his feet. Modestine trip-trotted along and even stopped at one point as if to wait for him. But as they turned the corner from around a hedge, his heart sank even deeper. For there, a little further up on the path he trod, was a friar. The man was exactly as Louis had seen in any number of Flemish paintings—his black and white robes hung heavily about him, gathering soil along the hem, and his hood was back on his shoulders, revealing a bald head as yellow as any parchment.

Apart from his familial religious background, holy men, particularly of the Catholic persuasion, presented him with a kind of abhorrence which he chalked up to his having read The Monk at, perhaps, too early an age. Could this creature, or any he might soon encounter, harbor any of the satanic lasciviousness of Lewis’s Ambrosio?

The cleric struggled with a barrowful of sod. As Louis approached him, he did so cautiously, completely at a loss as to how to greet a man who’d taken a vow of silence, and at the last moment he’d settled on a tilt of his cap. A simple greeting, saying nothing, and expecting nothing in return.

“Why hello!” said the friar, his face like two red apples capping the corners of a wide, white smile. “Are you heading for the monastery?”

Louis hadn’t expected so cheerful a salutation, or any greeting at all. He nodded and was about to explain his purpose.

“Are you English? Irish?” the friar went on.

“Scots,” Louis answered, much to the man’s delight.

“Wonderful,” he beamed. “I am Father Apollinaris. I’ve never seen a Scotsman before. What is this?” He motioned towards Modestine.

Louis looked at him strangely and wondered exactly how isolated this monastery was.

“She is my donkey,” he began, and the friar laughed.

“Oh, no, I mean this,” and he stepped forward and patted Louis’s sleeping sack, stretched sausage-like over Modestine’s back.

Louis explained.

“You must show this to Father Prior,” Father Apollinaris insisted. “Now, I regret to say that Our Lady of the Snows cannot receive you, but you can certainly get a meal, and then . . .”

“But I was hoping for lodging,” Louis said, confused.

“Well,” the friar stumbled. “It’s . . . there is a policy . . . for peddlers . . .”

Louis laughed.

“Oh, I’m not here, or anywhere, to sell anything,” he said. “I’m writing a book.”

Father Apollinaris clapped his hands together, his eyes dancing.

“Oh, how exciting! That is very different, then,” he said. “Come, I will take you to the gates. May I say you are a geographer?”

“Um, no,” Louis thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. In the interest of truth.”

“I see,” the friar said. He almost sounded disappointed, which amused Louis. “An author, then?”

Louis agreed, and so the friar joined him in his walk, and they talked of the ecclesiastical affairs of England, for Father Apollinaris had been in seminary with a number of Irish. They talked about the road on which they walked, a road, apparently, the friar had constructed entirely himself, as this was his preferred industry. They skirted the issue of Louis’s own faith, and upon admitting that he was, indeed, not of the friar’s “true faith,” the honorable man merely waved his hand and smiled, determined to preserve the good will between them. Louis’s admiration for him, and his faith, grew.

Before long, the holy edifice loomed before them. What Louis assumed were the living quarters stood almost five stories and was peaked with thirteen gables across; behind this stood the abbey, its steeple jutting skyward from the side of the roof. The whole was whitewashed, the tile rooves of dark ochre—all of the outbuildings matched the main.

“Here, I must stop,” said Father Apollinaris. “I certainly mustn’t be seen in conversation, as you understand.”

Louis nodded and was grateful for the private, loose chat they’d had, for he figured the next evening and day would be like one long, silent burial.

“Ask for Brother Porter,” the friar continued. “All will be well. We must not speak, but do see me on your way out. I am charmed by your acquaintance.” And with that, he gathered his robes and turned, his torso twisting back and flapping his fingers at Louis as if to wave him on his way. “I must not speak!” he called back and patted his lips, grinning.

Louis smiled, waved, and turned to the daunting holy castle before him.

* * *

As a knight-errant, Louis pounded on the door in what he thought was a rather valiant form, then he stood back with Modestine, who, for the first time, seemed resistant to barging into someone’s house.

The entrance creaked and a single eye peered warily out at them. With the half-look of only one eye, Louis realized that perhaps his tact hadn’t been the customary thing. He took his hat in his hands and lowered his head.

Pardon,” he stammered. “Father Apollinaris suggested I—”

The eyeball disappeared and the door closed. Louis heard whispering, and then the sound of the bolt being drawn. Three robed figures, one followed by two others, filed out, heads bowed.

“How can we help you?” asked the head man. The black scapular he wore over his white robe, like Father Apollinaris, distinguished him from his companions, whose white habits were unadorned. He cut a tall, intimidating figure, his hands presumably joining through his wide sleeves, his head shaved in tonsure, his monastic crown silver and trimmed very short. His face was stern, but his eyes kind.

Louis explained whom he was and that Father Apollinaris had directed him here.

“I was told to justify myself to a Brother Porter,” Louis added, thinking the more names he dropped, the more legitimate he might appear. “And to show Father Prior this.” He gestured to his sleeping sack.

“This is Brother Porter,” the head man said, gesturing to the man at his left. “I’m afraid,” he turned to the man on his right, “we are, perhaps, one too many. Brother Michael, you may return to your prayers.”

Brother Michael, his face smooth and young, smiled slightly, nodded silently, and disappeared inside the door. Brother Porter neither smiled nor frowned, but only gazed on pleasantly.

“I am Father Prior,” the head man said. “And what is this that Father Apollinaris thought I should like to see?”

Louis untied the cord that fastened the sack to Modestine and removed the bundle. He noticed a hand gesture, almost imperceptible, from Father Prior to Brother Porter, and the novice stepped forward and led Modestine away to the stable. By this, Louis assumed, he could, indeed, stay the night.

When Brother Porter returned, Father Prior was still enthusiastically inspecting Louis’s sleeping sack.

“Quite an amazing invention,” he said, and then showed it to Brother Porter, speaking in low tones. The young monk joined the old in his interest. He whispered an inquiry, the father answered, and Louis heard none of it. For a moment, he missed Modestine.

Finally, the sack was returned to Louis.

“An author,” Father Prior said.

“Yes.” He wanted to add more—to somehow defend his occupation—but he wasn’t sure what would sound better or worse. So he changed the subject. “May I ask?”

Father Prior nodded benignly.

“I was of the understanding that there was a vow—”

“Of silence?” The father smiled. He moved closer to Louis and Brother Porter understood the signal for privacy and stepped away. “There is no vow, on its face. Saint Benedict did not want us to cut our chords, so to speak. He only intended that words be used with temperance. No idle chit chat, but to converse only when it is necessary.”

Louis nodded. “I see.”

The monk moved even closer and whispered.

“Here, you will find some have indeed taken the vow entirely, and as a rule, talk is kept to a minimum, as we can easily communicate with signals, but,” he paused, and glanced at Brother Porter. “When we have guests, some of our brothers find that they’d forgotten how much they enjoy the sound of their own voices.”

Louis thought of jolly Father Apollinaris, waving his hands and calling I cannot speak! in what, to Louis, was a good and pleasant accent. It seemed a shame, for even if the men themselves should not take too much pride in their own speech, surely the sound of a pleasant voice should be allowed to give comfort to his fellow man in the midst of trying times.

Louis nodded again.

“But come,” said Father Prior. “We will give you a glass of brandy to keep you until the next meal, and then Brother Porter will show you to your cell.”

And that’s what happened.

Following a dry aperitif, Brother Porter led Louis into the monastery garden.

“Please rest,” he said in a voice so quiet Louis sped to him and faced him with his ear. “I will confirm where you will sleep and then come fetch you.”

Louis thanked him and then watched the man’s feet move beneath his robes, hardly disturbing the small pebbles of the path.

It was one of many that very attractively segmented the garden, which was enclosed like a large courtyard with buildings on all sides—two dormitories, the abbey, and the stable. There were two dormitories, not because there were so many brothers, but because one was reserved for messieurs les retraitants—gentlemen who, perhaps not equipped to make the kind of commitment the men here have, came for a quiet, religious retreat of calm and contemplation.

In a way, Louis thought, that’s exactly what he was doing. Not specifically in this place, but his reason for journeying at all—contemplation. Rather than practitioners of either faith—Catholic or Protestant—Louis preferred to make his confession and do his penance to the naked sky, the infinite space above where his atonement housed itself in the stabbing sparkle of a stupefying inventory of stars. He favored the council of the wind through the trees. And this, perhaps, represents a small but significant measurement of the rift between he and his father. Louis didn’t quite know which made him more miserable—that the trappings of his religion carried more weight with his father than did his morality and endeavors to be a good man, or that, in the end, they would all be so much stardust.

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Bathroom Meth

Nothing too flashy here, unless you count the meth making. Justin Spencer Hill attracted attention to his grand scheme of one-pot public restroom meth cooking, when a construction worker called the Five-O upon seeing chemical- and acid-smelling smoke wafting from a Detwiler Park men’s restroom. He also saw Hill running from the scene with a bag in his hand. According to Volusia Country Corrections, he was apprehended no fewer than five times in 2014, culminating in this epic arrest which included two separate charges of possession of paraphernalia, felony battery, burglary of an unoccupied conveyance, possession of a schedule IV substance, possession of cannabis not more than 20 grams, battery on an emergency medical care provider, and the contribution to the delinquency/dependency of a minor—it sounds like there was more to this incident than reported.

Associated Press. “Man Set Up Meth Lab in Park Bathroom: Police.” NBC Miami. NBC Universal Inc. November 26, 2014.

 

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

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.

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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.

Table of Contents

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.”

Table of Contents

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.

Table of Contents

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.

Table of Contents

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.

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