The Great Pumpkin Chase

pump

By A.J. Llewellyn

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

- Henry David Thoreau

‘Tis the season of pumpkins. Lots and lots of pumpkins.

I’m not sure if we’re all yearning for a return to gentler times, or we’re embracing the spirit of the great round thing called The World, but I like it. I’ve been reading a lot about the symbolism of pumpkins and way back when – before we commercialized this time of year – pumpkins were considered a sign of good fortune and abundance. Households had strict rules about keeping only round pumpkins, which represented the world. They would carve their pumpkins for good luck. They would sometimes hollow them out and place candles in them to symbolize lighting the way home.

We’re still observing these rituals and I noticed I’ve been invited to more pumpkin-carving parties this year (for adults) than I have in all the years I’ve lived in Los Angeles.

Shopping at my favorite store Trader Joe’s recently, I became a bit obsessed with the “everything’s pumpkin!” motif. There were pumpkin raviolis, pumpkin bread, pies,soup, breakfast rolls, pumpkin truffles (with sea salt and caramel…mmmm…), pancake mixes, pumpkin muffins, seeds, spiced seeds, pumpkin fudge, ice cream, toaster pastries, and my favorite, pumpkin cheesecake.

Sure it’s seasonal, but it seems to be just huge right now. After this weekend the scary Jack-o-lanterns will be replaced by plain pumpkins and gourds in readiness for Thanksgiving. I love this time of year. I like the chilly mornings and evening, the hot summer days and thinking about how I’ll cook pumpkin for dinner. I was walking my dog today thinking about this blog and it struck me that ever since I heard the story of Cinderella’s coach, which of course. was really a humble pumpkin, I’ve seen them as a symbol of hope, and love. And of course, magic.

I write about all three, so as I started thinking about this blog I realized as much as we’re heading into chaotic waters with the electronic generation, many of us are sticking to tradition and myth. I’ve never liked Halloween because I didn’t grow up with it, but as I yearn for a simpler life, of reconnecting with my own family’s traditions and celebrating cycles and seasons, I will attend those pumpkin-carving parties and I’ll happily participate in Halloween festivities with my niece and nephews.

I want them to have memories of pumpkins, the belief in magic, tradition, and most importantly, love.

As I write this, my niece is in my kitchen making coconut pumpkin cookies from a recipe she found online. I have baked with her since was two years old and I will get in there in a minute and help her demolish them all. We’ve stopped pretending that we’ll save some for our other family members.

She is is so in the moment as one is when young, and she is a powerful reminder to me that some things never change. Anticipating the seasons and the good things to be found in them is like re-reading a treasured book. We want the comfort of the story, for the magic to weave its glow all over us again.

However you celebrate this time of year, I wish you peace, love, freedom, a good book to read.

And a great big pumpkin.

Happy Halloween,

A.J.

Phantom Lover Chronicles Chapter Two FREE BLOG STORY! Comment for a chance to WIN!

PhantomCHRONICLES

Phantom Lover Chronicles

By A.J. Llewellyn

Cover Art: Silver Pixies

Link to Chapter One: http://www.ajllewellyn.com/site/2013/03/18/2039/

 

 

Chapter Two: The Kawatarō

 

Kimo chewed his lip a moment. It had finally sunk in that the ‘E’epa had not only abducted our children, but taken our car, which left us stranded. Kimo could shape-shift and jump from one spot to another thanks to his huna magic, but he wasn’t Superman and couldn’t fly around in the sky hunting for our kids.

“Do you think Snape would be able to fly after them?” he asked. As usual, he was able to read my thoughts. It wasn’t very convenient sometimes, like now. He looked at me, anxiously awaiting a response.

“No. He can’t fly.”

“That’s a relief.” Kimo grinned. “Okay. I have good news for you, and bad news for you. Which do you want first?”

“Gimme the good news.”

“I promise that I’ll have the kids all home in time for dinner.”

“Okay. So what’s the bad news?”

“I have no idea where the heck they are.”

My body swayed involuntarily. I adored my husband, but I’d never been so mad at him. How could he have let this happen? Kimo was in touch with the infinite. The nature spirits and the deities of our islands all communicated with him. This was a bad sign if he had no information, no whispery thoughts or images in his mind.

“I didn’t say I have nothing.” His expression turned wounded. “I keep seeing a river.” He shrugged. “I know it’s not much, but…” He began biting his lip again. His eyes took on the vacant look they did when he was receiving communication. “Oh,” he said, his face looking ashen. He was having a conversation with somebody or something on the other side of the veil.

When this happened, I couldn’t read his mind. He closed his thoughts from me. I wanted to scream at him, but it was my fault, really. I was the one who’d suggested he conjure up some magic. This was a whole lot worse than green ogre ears. My sister. Oh, God. How was I going to explain this to her? She would freak out. She would kill me. Oh, man. I’d kill me too, if I were her.

Kimo turned suddenly and as I followed his gaze, I spotted the ghost of a Japanese woman. She stood on the edge of the heaiu, gesturing to him. He walked right over to her, but something about her frightened me. It took me several seconds to realize the heavy wooden yolk she wore around her neck was the type that King Kamehameha the Great forced people to wear when they’d been selected to his human sacrifices in honor of the war god, Ku. The intended victim would wear the yolk that was so heavy it made movement difficult, for up to three days before death.

The spirit of a Hawaiian man appeared beside the Japanese woman. His body was mangled, and around his neck he wore a ka’ane, a strangle cord that was used to hold down victims designated to be beaten to death.

I shivered. There must have been many restless ghosts here. Thousands of men had been sacrificed to Ku. That crazy old king was keen on human offerings, and in the most gruesome ways possible. He thought the more pain the victim suffered, the more it pleased his war god. What puzzled me was that he selected criminals usually, and as far as I knew, always men. I’d never heard of him choosing a woman. He apparently considered women and children inferior sacrifices.

And putting the yolk around her neck – or any victim’s neck – signified they’d committed a terrible kapu, a violation to be marked for death. It wasn’t difficult to commit kapu back in those days. Just standing in the king’s shadow or looking him in the eye condemned you to death. What could she have done to displease his majesty so much? She seemed anguished and exhausted.

Kimo conducted a lengthy conversation with the spirits of the Japanese woman, and the Hawaiian man, then turned and moved back over to me, his eyes grave. “We have a little problem,” he said.

No shit, McGarrett.  ”What is it?” I asked.

He peered at me anxiously. “It’s kind of an interesting problem.”

“You don’t say,” I deadpanned.

Kimo winced. “This lady, her name is Momoko. She has quite a tale to tell.” He took a deep breath. “Her father came from Japan as a sugar slave a long time ago. When he received his freedom papers after five years of work, he sent for his wife, Momoko’s mother. She became pregnant very quickly and Momoko was born here. She says when she was four, she realized around the same time as her mother, that her father had a secret life. He was kappa.”

I stared at him. “What’s a kappa?”

“In short, they are river monsters. He kept his secret for a long time, but Momoko’s mother took off, leaving Momoko and her brother, Yasu, in their father’s care. Momoko says he was a good father, and in spite of their reputation as killers and tricksters, he was a good monster.”

“A good monster. Kimo, do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”

Kimo held up a hand. “He provided food and shelter for many families in their village, which she says was in Hale’iwa.”

This made sense to me. Many of the freed Asian workers flocked to the North Shore of Oahu when they achieved freedom. Firstly, it was largely unpopulated and land was cheap. The island’s very first hotel, the Hale’iwa, had been built there and many Asian families created small businesses that catered to the guests. Some of the men helped build the now-defunct Hawaiian railroad that carried visitors from Waikiki to the North Shore each weekend.

Hale’iwa also had a beach and a river…

A river.

“Anahulu River,” I said.

Kimo nodded encouragingly. “Exactly.  There was a very bad storm, Momko said. A typhoon that devastated parts of the North Shore. Her father helped everybody, but the work of restoring homes and businesses was back-breaking, so he and her brother, Yasu turned themselves into kappa late at night and finished a lot of the work without anybody realizing. They had supernatural powers and worked hard and fast. The locals credited the menehune, and the family never corrected them.”

“So,” I said, “He does sound like a good um, monster.”

“As you know, once King Kamehameha died, this heiau was used by some dark kahuna who also performed human sacrifice. Momoko’s father was seen in his kappa form, captured and blamed for shark kills on the shores of the ocean. He’d been seen shape-shifting, but he always denied he had anything to do with the ocean. He stuck strictly to mountains and rivers. He said he loved the land, and its people, and protected them.

“Only one kahuna believed him and fought to spare his life. Instead, a stronger sorcerer-type guy shackled him, then captured Momoko and Yasu by lying to them. He said if they came willingly to the heiau, they would be designated official land spirits. Momoko had never shown any signs of being kappa, but she worried her brother and father would be slaughtered and that they would not be accepted as land spirits.”

I looked across the rough expanse of stubbly grass and pebbles where she’d been standing, but I could no longer see her now. “And what happened?”

“All three of them were painfully sacrificed.” He let the words sink in. “Yasu however, has turned into a very mischievous kappa. She says he is a Kawatarō.”

“Which is, I’m afraid to ask?”

“A river boy.” Kimo turned to look back at the spot where Momoko had been standing. “She said he has been waiting for a long time to return to the river. He longs to be with their father, who returned here many years ago. She can come with us. If we are willing to take her, and reunite them. The only way Yasu was able to return was with human children.”

“He’s not going to hurt our babies is he?” I was near hysteria now. How the hell were we supposed to get to Anahulu River?

“Oh, ye of little faith. Don’t you know me better than that, Mypaka?” He dropped a kiss on my lips. “I will ask Pele to provide us transportation and it will come.” He gestured to Momoko. “Our people wronged her family. I’d like to take her with us and give final freedom to her and her family.”

“But that little…whatever he was that ran off with our children didn’t look like a little Japanese boy.”

“No. That was a shell he created. The Kawatarō are tricksters, just like our own ‘E’epa. He must have met a lot of them over the centuries here. He would have found it easy to create the shell, and I walked right into his trap.” He shrugged. “Everybody makes mistakes.”

I said nothing. I just wanted to get to Hale’iwa. From where we were in Pupukea, it was about a five-mile drive. With the winding Kamehameha Road traffic, it would take us about twenty minutes to get there, depending on what type of transportation he was able to summon for us.

“Momoko,” Kimo said, his voice deeper now, his breath coming out frosty. This happened whenever he worked huna magic. She emerged from the same spot. She knelt before Kimo and the man with the strangle cord appeared beside her.

She spoke in rapid-fire Japanese.

“What is she saying?” I asked my husband.

“She said, save me.”

That made me so emotional. She was already dead. It was her soul that screamed for peace. I suddenly remembered the spirit of the young Japanese girl who had invaded our lives – and my body – the previous Halloween, seeking justice for her unsolved murder.

I sighed. Kimo and I drew troubled souls both living and death like flames lured moths. I didn’t mind helping Momoko, but I could tell Kimo was having a hard time convincing the dead Hawaiian with the strangle cord that he should let her go. I couldn’t figure out their connection and Kimo’s voice fluttered into my mind.

::He was the bounty hunter who captured Momoko’s family. The kahuna who hired him, tricked him, and killed him, too. He doesn’t want Momoko to leave. He’s grown to love her.:: Kimo looked at me imploringly. ::His feelings are not reciprocated.::

Oh, boy.

Kimo worked wonders in his communication with the dead. The spirits of tribal elders soon emerged, supporting Kimo in his efforts to right a wrong.

“Go,” one of the older men said, pointing a spear toward the exit. Kimo, Momoko and I didn’t need a printed invitation. We left. When I turned to look, everybody had vanished.

“What happened?” I asked as we trudged up a long slope toward the street.

“They gave me ten minutes to get away from here.” He glanced at me, a guilty look on her face. “Lopaka, we’ve become her family’s guardians. I’ve personally guaranteed they will be benevolent spirits and not harmful ones. Momoko says her father is quite bitter. Hopefully he won’t make a liar out of me.”

Out on the street, we looked up and down the highway. “Well, ain’t that a pip,” Kimo said, hands on hips. I felt certain Madame Pele would send a vehicle. After all, she did promise.”

The clip-clop of horse hooves caught our attention. From our left came an old-fashioned mule-drawn streetcar, the kind that used to be the popular form of public transportation in the islands. Motorized streetcars had replaced the mules around 1900.

“Perhaps I should have been a little more specific,” Kimo muttered.

“No. This is right.” I watched Momoko climbing up the steps. She was still wearing the yoke and I could tell it made movement difficult. “She would freak out in a modern vehicle.”

“Yeah.” Kimo nodded. The streetcar was half full, but nobody seemed to be aware of us. To our left sat elegantly dressed men and women wearing formal, wintry suits ill-suited to the Hawaiian climate. On the right sat workers, mostly Asian, giggling and whispering among themselves.

“When does she lose the yoke?” I asked Kimo.

“As soon as we deliver her safely to her family.” A muscle worked in his cheek. “And before they turn over the children to us.” His eyes took on that vacant look again. “I’m so glad Pele is with them. Our little girl won’t take shit from anybody.”

“Language, darling.”

“Well, it’s true. I sort of feel sorry for that little river boy. He’s met his match with our firecracker.”

He was right. Thank God we hadn’t been able to tame her wild ways. I’d never have to worry about her on a date. I’d have to worry that she’d do something to the guy. I could live with that…

Momoko sat beside me, head bent. In some ways she reminded me of Ayumi, the girl we’d sent to the Pureland when we solved her murder.

Kimo shook his head at me. Momoko lifted hers. I realized then it was hard for her to sit up straight with the yoke and I wanted to rip the damned thing off.

I gasped when I looked outside of the slow-moving streetcar, stunned to see a gleaming black and green railway carriage gliding past us on the edge of the road. I was giddy with excitement because I’d always wanted to see the long-gone train, but that was the point. It was gone. Long, long ago.

“Lopaka,” Kimo said, a mixture of excitement and dread on his face. “I have bad news for you, and bad news for you.”

“No good news?”

“Well, some.”

“Gimme that first.”

“The good news is, that we’re getting close to the river.”

“Okay, so what’s the bad news?”

“We’ve somehow, I don’t know how, stepped back in time over a hundred years. I don’t think I’ll get our kids back by dinner time because I have no idea when that is.”

I stared at him. “But we will find them, won’t we?”

The streetcar stopped.

“This is it.” Kimo helped me and Momoko off the vehicle. Around us stood tiny stores all bearing Japanese names. Momoko stared toward the river.

“Papa!” she cried out, then ran toward a bent-over elderly Japanese man. Beside him loomed the little ‘E’epa and he pointed and laughed at us.

“Where are my children?” I screamed at him.

The little bastard just laughed and laughed.

“Huh,” Kimo said. “This shit just got even more interesting.”

 

 

 

Giving New Life to Older Titles

whoshelf

By A.J. Llewellyn

If I had my way, my whole house would be books, books, books. My favorite bookstore in Ojai, CA – Bart’s Books – is located outdoors and even has shelves built into the trees. And I am all about recycling so I fully approve of this photo depicting a novel use for defunct telephone booths.

Having said that, sometimes, reaching back to the future as an author is an exciting prospect. To that end, I’ve talked with my publishers at Totally Bound and I am going to be revamping a couple of my very early books with them, such as “The Mediator” and “Paper Valentine.”

I think both these early efforts could use a little expanding, and new covers, too. I am excited to go back and rework these stories, which I still love, but see definite areas for improvement.

My work has changed a lot since I wrote these books and I still love the characters. So, while I won’t be moving them into a refurbished phone booth (especially the Victorian men from “Paper Valentine”) I do want to spruce ‘em up a bit. I am really happy to be able to do this.

When I looked over “The Mediator” recently, I could remember exactly what I was doing when I wrote it. I was still a boxing journalist and moving out of the sports arena and into writing romance novels full-time.

Ironically, I was in Las Vegas at the time and my boyfriend took me to the old Avenue D area, where in the 1940′s, African Americans were kept segregated from the white population. When Sammy Davis Jr. blew into town in the 50′s to perform on the Strip, he spent his nights in the awful Berkley Square section of West Las Vegas. This is a little-known, shameful chapter in American history, but on that fateful weekend in Vegas, I became absorbed in the area.

My boyfriend and I strolled the old neighborhood that consisted of 148 homes, a barber, a couple of grocery stores, and a shop-front dentist’s office.

It was as though time stood still that Saturday morning. I could feel the ghosts of those who’d lived there and my emotions ran deep. I shouldn’t have been surprised when boxing promoter Don King showed up in a limo armed with a crew of architects. He donated a huge amount of his own money to preserving Berkley Square, and invested in a park to memorialize the original residents.

In 2009, in no small part due to Mr. King, this area was placed on the National Historic Register. The area looks so different in so many ways because a whole new community has sprung up around it, but Berkley Square, the heart of this community, remains the same. This storyline played a strong part in “The Mediator” but just like the Square itself, the book’s integrity, its heart, will remain the same.

There will just be more. More sex, more love, more…mediation.
Aloha oe,

A.J

Waikiki Vampire Chronicles Chapter Three – FREE BLOG STORY!

waikiki vampires

 

Waikiki Vampire Chronicles

Chapter Three: O ke aloha ka ‘iu ~Love is paradise

Cover Art: John Bruno       

Model: Leo Giamani

By A.J. Llewellyn

 

Link to Chapter One: http://www.ajllewellyn.com/site/2013/01/09/1960/

Link to Chapter Two: http://www.ajllewellyn.com/site/2014/01/01/2149/

 

Chapter Three

 

I ran through the house toward the source of the hysterical screaming just as Kalani let the people from Child Protective Services into the house.

“Smoke!” Tem yelled from somewhere behind me, his voice muffled.

“Is there a fire in here?” a female voice demanded.

Oh, no. I recognized the shrill tones of Martha, our case worker from Applewood Orphanage.

“Get the boys and take them outside,” I instructed Tem when he appeared beside me. “I’ll look for Moontime.”

“Please, Div! Find him!” Tem sounded far away now. I couldn’t see him for all the smoke, and I really had no idea where to look for our cat. I bumped into something solid. Holy moly. Jim Carter from CPS, closely followed by his steely sidekick, April Montgomery.

From some place close, a deep, demonic voice giggled. April’s mouth dropped open in a frozen, frightened O, as the air took on a deathly stench. Coupled with smoke from the fire I could see licking along the doorframe of my office, it was scary as hell.

“Jim, April, please go outside. We’ll be right there.”

“Keej—” Jim started to say.

“Tem has both boys.” I hope. “Please, the sprinkler system hasn’t kicked in, and I don’t know why.” I pointed toward the back door.

They didn’t argue.

They retreated. The smoke was thick and impenetrable.

“Stay low!” I yelled after them. We had three extinguishers on the premises installed by our trusty security expert, Francois Aumary, plus bulletproof glass on all our windows and cabinetry.

He’d also installed sprinklers in some of the rooms. Why the hell weren’t they working?

Martha suddenly emerged from my office and gave a shriek, just as water jetted from the from the door. She scuttled past me. I pointed to the back door and she didn’t stop.

“Akua! Keej! Tem” I yelled. I had to get them out of the house.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. A chilly breath crept along my right arm, then my left.

“Stop it!” I commanded.

The mad laughter grew closer. It was a horrible sound, like a thousand guttural voices straight out of a bad horror movie.

Somebody tickled my stomach, then the back of my neck.

I whipped around, furious that anyone would play games with me at a time like this. The tickling continued. Whoever was doing it knew the exact places to get me, except that the perpetrator was now pressing harder. I tried to fight off the invisible fingers now pinching and cutting into my skin.

And then I saw the shimmer.

Hot damn!

Tijlaug! That ghostly little runt had set fire to my house and thought it was funny!

Tem raged past me, a fire extinguisher under one arm, Keej under the other. Thick, acrid smoke continued to pour out of my office as Jim and April reappeared.

“Where is Keej?” April shouted at me.

This is no time to fool around!” Tem telepathed. Aloud he turned to the CPS officials. “The kids are safe. Let’s get out of here.”

Somebody began biting my ankles. I glanced down to find a petrified-looking Akua. That did it. Nobody scared my nephew that way.

“Get up here. Now,” I commanded him. His storm-demon eyes turned red and he levitated to my shoulders quickly.

April looked astonished, but I couldn’t worry about that now.

“Hold on, Akua!” I shouted. “Don’t look, baby!”

He straddled my neck, then I turned and tried to fix my gaze on the flickering Tijlaug. I threw my hands toward him. He was pointing and laughing at me, but suddenly let out a shriek.

“I’ve been dead a lot longer than you, you little fire-starter,” I whispered. “I know some tricks.”

Tijlaug writhed in pain, his crazy laughter turning into agonized yelps as from outside, sirens blared.

“Oh, please,” I shouted at the zashiki warashi over the cacophony. “It doesn’t hurt that much.”

At least, I didn’t think so. I had received an unexpected gift along with my family’s vampire curse. I could toss ectoplasm out of my fingertips and fling it at a ghost. It was supposed to freeze them and stop them in their tracks. I’d never needed this talent before, because most of the ghosts I encountered were deceased family members, or helpful entities. Not little dickheads like Tijlaug, and so I had no idea if Tijlaug was really in pain or whether he was exhibiting a flair for the dramatic.

Suddenly, he smiled. Blossom had arrived and like the mischievous little imp that he was, he became captivated by the crystals on her beaded dress. His head tilted from side to side. His spiteful expression returned and he tried to yank one of the crystals off her bodice.

She went crazy, hosing him with great gusts of ectoplasm.

Tijlaug’s shrieks grew more frenzied. Akua gasped and wrapped his legs and hands around my head.

I couldn’t see.

“Akua! Leggo!”

Tijlaug was on the floor now, mewing like a pitiful kitten. I peeled my nephew’s hands from my eyes and looked down at Tijlaug. Man, he was an ugly mofo.

“He’s playing for sympathy,” Blossom seethed. “Get the baby out of here. I’ll deal with this little bastard myself.”

“No!” Tijlaug, the little drama queen that he was, jumped to his feet, threw his hands up in the air and ran off, just as Keej collided with me, burying his face in my knee cap.

“Are you okay Keej?” I asked, picking him up. “What are you doing back here?”

He looked excited. “Tem’s putting out another fire! He’s so awesome!”

I raced outside with both boys.

“That was so cool!” Akua enthused when Tem emerged from the house drenched in fire extinguisher foam. Martha, Jim, and April were spluttering and coughing.

Fire fighters paraded past us, invading the house. Some of them were super-cute, too.

Both boys clung to me as smoke spiraled out of our windows and doors in dispirited circles into the air.

I wondered where the hell Moontime was, and hope he hadn’t been hiding in my office. No. I felt he’d gone off for a good long sulk some place away from the house. He was alive, I was sure of it. I glanced at Tem and my heart broke to see his woebegone expression.

“So many beautiful things, destroyed,” he said, his bewildered, beautiful eyes tearing my soul to shreds.

I couldn’t say they were just things. I couldn’t say we’d replace them. Many of the items in my office were family heirlooms. They were one-of-a-kind pieces. I closed my eyes and hugged the two boys closer to me. A wretched tiredness swept over me. I’d just remembered that shrouding a ghost–the proper terminology for flinging ectoplasm–was supposed to be exhausting work.

The fire crew came back out of the house, rolling up their massive hoses.

“She’s out,” one of the men said to me.

I opened my eyes, aware of April’s scrutiny.

“It wasn’t as bad as it looked,” the fireman said. “Somebody set three different fires in your office, using some old wooden toys in your cabinets. Your sprinkler system works, but your friend Tem indicates the blaze kept re-starting. Somebody in this house is a real fire bug. Whoever it was tried to sabotage your security system. Amazing those flames didn’t spread.”

“That was Tem’s quick thinking,” I said. “He went in with a fire extinguisher and blasted the place.”

“Other fires were set in a couple of other rooms,” the fireman told me. “For some reason, none of them ignited. Weird, huh?”

Blossom emerged from the house and grabbed herself a handful of fireman’s ass.

“Verrrry nice work,” she told him. The poor guy looked like he was really starting to sweat now.

I exchanged looks with Tem. It was astonishing to think that the zashiki warashi would wreak such havoc when we’d welcomed him into our home. I’d always heard they were troublemakers but had been willing to give him a chance.

Not anymore.

He’d deliberately started more fires. He could have killed Tem. Tijlaug could have killed everybody.

What’s more, I knew one of those toys used as kindling was a very rare, original prototype G.I. Joe from 1963 with a face hand-crafted to look like Sean Connery. Now priced at $200,000 I had bought it for myself as a gag gift one lonely Christmas. I had no idea it would become so valuable. I’d kept it for its increasing worth, and, as a reminder of my life waiting for Tem to find me. Up until the day I met him, the only man I had any desire to undress and play with was that G.I. Joe doll.

“Oh, Div.” He must have been reading my thoughts, because he shook his head at me.

“Any idea who started it?” the fireman asked, writing something down on a clipboard.

“None,” I said.

“None?” he gave me a look of disbelief, and I spread my hands. “We’ve had some strange people up here on the mountain lately. Total strangers. We have security, but when we’re home, our house isn’t exactly Fort Knox.”

He held my gaze a moment. What I’d said was true. I just neglected to mention that one of the strangers was a dead one, bent on trouble.

My sister and Clancy trooped out of the house holding several instruments in their arms.

“They’re irreplaceable,” Clancy muttered.

Yes, they were. I wish I could have salvaged some of my things, but I had to grow a pair and stop dwelling on the subject.

“You need better security,” the fireman said. “With the drought we’ve been having, you’re lucky this old house didn’t fall apart completely. Look at the shape it’s in!”

Old? Who you callin’ old, buddy? You’re lucky I only eat bad guys! Bad Div, bad.

“Somebody will be following up with you within a couple of hours. We’ve put tape across the office door. Nobody’s to go in there.” He ripped a sheet of paper from his clipboard. ”

“We can go inside the house?” Tem asked.

“Except for that room,” the fireman snapped as he stalked away from our property. The boys waved to the crew as they loaded up on the fire truck.

With the house cleared for us to re-enter, we all walked in, the mood somber as Tem flung open more windows.

“Well!” he said, with a bouncy air. “That was an adventure, wasn’t it?”

Martha, Jim, and April all looked homicidal. My poor man’s face fell. I knew we were thinking the same thing. They would take Keej from us. They would hate us forever and ban us for life from the orphanage for not keeping an eye on him. We’d be persona non grata, like the Octomom lady but with no plastic surgery.

I worried for poor little Keej. They would blame him for this episode, when it had nothing to do with him.

There was a moment of awkwardness where they said nothing and Tem, Clancy, Kalani, Blossom, and I all exchanged furtive looks.

The girls put the instruments on chairs at the kitchen table.

“Tem darling, you will make us some tea?” Blossom inclined her head to my addled husband who blinked a few times, then nodded.

“Yes, of course.” He threw a desperate look at me.

“Akua-san, Keej-san, you come with grandma now, darlings.” Blossom was dripping a sweetness completely out of character for her.

Where is the vampire queen and what have you done with her? I didn’t recognize this doting, domesticated duchess. I kept remembering her naked in red high heels stripping for her weirdo boyfriend.

I shook my head of the memory. It was almost worse than Tijlaug’s insane laughter. Where the hell was that hideous creature, anyway?

“Where’s Tijlaug?” Tem’s thoughts invaded mine.

No idea. Brace yourself, sweetheart. They’re going to take Keej from us.”

Never,” Tem telepathed. I received images of us on a boat in the ocean with the two boys. Oh, man. He was planning an escape.

I let both boys down to the ground. They kissed my cheeks, and I kissed theirs. They took each other’s hands and went off with Blossom. I caught Jim and April staring at me. Jim suddenly coughed.

Tem sprang into action, instantly offering him iced water. He turned on the kettle, then opened the cupboards looking for food.

My God.

They were all bare.

Holy moly, Mother Hubbard!

I closed my eyes. Tijlaug had been a busy little prick. He must have emptied them.

“Oh!” Tem’s cheeks flamed, closing them quickly.

We don’t even have a single tea leaf,” he telepathed to me. “What’s CPS going to say when they see we don’t have any food for Keej?”

I sent frantic messages to my sister, who nodded.

“Distract them. Ask Clancy to play something. You know what a ham she is. I’ll go down to the bomb shelter and get some supplies,” she telepathed, then slipped away quickly.

I’d forgotten about our secret hideaway. We called it a bomb shelter, but it was really a panic room for us vampires to sleep in total safety should we need it.

That relieved me. I sent this message to Tem, who gave Clancy a dazzling smile.

“Clancy, while I’m making tea, why don’t you play us some nice music?” he asked, getting out our finest china. It was Royal Doulton with a pattern called Colclough Braganza. Tem had searched for it for months on various antique websites because it was the pattern used in a British TV series called Keeping Up Appearances, except that on that show, Hyacinth Bouquet pompously calls it “My Royal Doulton with the hand-painted periwinkles.”

“I’d love it,” Clancy said, picking up her Stradivarius from one of the kitchen chairs. She sat on the countertop, legs crossed, her expression dreamy-eyed as she began playing.

“Please, sit down,” I urged our guests. I moved all the instruments to a sideboard. I was surprised Jim and April still hadn’t said anything. The place smelled disgusting, we had no visible food in the place, and, God help me, Clancy was playing the worst possible music she could have chosen.

“Is that a funeral dirge?” April ventured.

I laughed out loud, making everyone jump. “Clancy has a wicked sense of humor. My wife is quite the comedian.”

Clancy opened and closed her mouth. Since becoming a vampire, she’s turned into quite the macabre little musician. She stared at me, fuming, but changed the music to something livelier. It sounded Hawaiian and made me want to bring out my hula skirt.

Much better.

Behind me, Kalani was back with an armful of packages, and, I noticed, some pieces of fresh fruit from the garden. She took over helping Tem in the kitchen. Clancy was usually his helper. Within minutes, Blossom had returned with the kids. I glanced at Keej, surprised to see a shimmer around him.

Dang, I’d thought Tijlaug was gone. Kalani and Tem brought the tea tray to the table. The boys drank fresh pineapple juice and nibbled at ham and cheese sandwiches Kalani had cut into triangles.

They were giggling about something, completely unaffected by the drama.

I was anxious about Akua but he was a model gentleman. He didn’t fling a single piece of bread across the room, didn’t unleash a single tantrum, and there was no projectile vomiting, his favorite party trick.

He and Keej ate quickly. “Uncle Div, can we play with our wii?” he asked.

“Yeah! Can we? Please?” Keej looked pleadingly at me.

“Of course you can,” Tem soothed. “Blossom, do you mind—”

“I’d be happy to watch them,” she said, rising from the table and gliding away with such ancient charm, even I was beguiled.

I began to worry. She was never this nice, so I wondered what price I’d have to pay for this little pantomime.

She left behind a whiff of some spicy kind of perfume, and a dark red lipstick mark on the edge of Tem’s teacup that I knew he’d never be able to remove. Blossom’s lipsticks were ancient Chinese formulas created centuries ago for concubines so that they would always have perfect mouths. Those lipsticks lived longer than the women who used them.

There was a knock at the back door. Clancy and Heavenly opened it.

Oh, heck no. Siberio.

Blossom’s lover came in dressed in his black tunic and skinny black pants. He wore love beads and Maltese crosses around his neck. He’d taken time to brush his long hair. I wanted to pull it out by the roots. He smiled at the women, and swept a stray strand back with a long, tapered hand that featured black nail polish on his fingertips.

How the hell did I explain this creature feature to the people from CPS?

“Howdy,” he said. This was weird considering he sounded like Count Dracula.

I’ve grappled with the problem of understanding women for several centuries now. I’m still no closer to getting them. I was shocked when both Martha and April seemed smitten by him.

“I’m a shaman,” he told them, taking the seat vacated by Blossom.

Martha, a plump, pleasant woman who is always on a diet but never seems to lose weight, showed an avid interest in the weird food program Siberio suddenly prescribed to her.

Clancy and Heavenly showed a strange interest in the guy, too. I hoped they weren’t contemplating a threesome. Blossom would kill them. All three of them.

“I’d like to lose weight too,” a stick-thin April said loudly.

“I can devise something tailored to your needs based on spiritual contemplation.”

Oh, fuck, no!

Tem looked petrified. He’s a head case. Any second now they’ll figure it out. They’re going to take my baby from me! His thoughts screamed.

I was ready to drop-kick Siberio off our mountain, but for some bizarre reason he’d charmed the women, and Jim seemed to like him, too.

“Keej has such a wonderful family,” April said. “We’re to let him stay with you.”

“These are righteous folk,” Siberio said, nodding to her.

Say, maybe this asshole wasn’t so bad after all.

“We’re so happy for him,” Jim said.

Martha was a little more grounded than April. Maybe she didn’t dig the love beads so much. “We want to know the outcome of the investigation into the fire,” she told me.

They got up and left the house, Siberio walking off to find Blossom and the boys.

“I’ve been so worried,” Martha said to me. “We got such crazy reports from Keej’s family.” She pulled a face. “Are you sure he didn’t start the fire?”

“Of course not,” I assured her.

Once she and the others left, Tem and I cleaned up the kitchen.

“We’re going for a ride,” Clancy told us. I had no idea if she meant their horses, or each other. I decided I didn’t want to know which. As soon as they left, Tem looked at me.

“Still no sign of Moontime, Div.” His gaze broke my heart.

“We’ll find him,” I promised, pulling him into my arms. I was about to give him a kiss to end all kisses when Blossom and Siberio emerged with the boys.

“Do you mind if we show Siberio the panic room?” she asked. “I think he’ll be so impressed.”

“I don’t mind,” I said. “Take your time.”

“Look after my babies,” Tem instructed. He was so possessive of those boys.

And I am possessive of him. I took the kitchen sponge out of his hand and steered him to our bedroom. He needed a major distraction, and I needed to suck his cock.

He let me kiss him. I felt his focus wavering on the damned cat as I began to undress him. I pushed him to the bed and began unbuttoning his tight, vintage jeans. He was getting a nice big hard-on as I worked on him.

Suddenly, he brushed my hand away, and sat up on the bed shouting, “When the cat’s away!”

“What?” I only had two buttons to go on his fly. Damn!

“Don’t you see?” he asked, his lovely eyes looking troubled again.

“See what, my love?” I see your juicy cock waiting for my attention.

“Oh, Div. You have such a one-track mind.

“I know it.” I hung my head in shame.

When the Cat’s Away,” he repeated. “The French movie we saw, remember? Where the woman in Paris loses her cat and goes all over the city looking for him and for weeks goes crazy and it turns out he was stuck behind her stove all that time. Oh, Div! What if Moontime is stuck behind ours?”

He bolted from the bed and out of the room.

I followed him into the kitchen, hoping the people from CPS wouldn’t show up  as Tem dismantled the joint. I helped him move the stove.

No Moontime.

My cell phone rang. I was surprised to hear Keej’s uncle apologizing for hanging up on me.

“I wasn’t very nice to you,” he said. “In fact, my wife says I was very rude.”

Resisting the urge to say, “You were,” I waited to hear what he was going to tell me.

“Anyway, I had to call back because there’s something you should know.”

“Oh?” I said as I heard some ragged cat shrieks.

“Moontime!” Tem and I shouted in unison.

Tem pulled our bedraggled boy from behind the fridge. He looked awful. Crimson slashes on his neck and chest glistened with blood.

“He’s…he’s hurt, Div.” Tem turned frightened eyes toward me. He gaped at me. A chilly breath puffed at the back of my neck.

“There’s no good way to tell you this but Keej has demon possession,” the uncle said.

“Yes. We are aware of that.”

He inhaled sharply. “You are? How?”

“We met.”

A pause. “Which one did you meet?”

The chilly sensation began to envelop me. “You mean there’s more than one?”

“Who did you meet?” he demanded.

“Tijlaug.”

There was a brief pause. Then, “He’s bad. But his twin is worse. If you want your family to stay alive, get out of that house. Now.”

I clutched the phone, staring at Tem as Moontime seemed to collapse in his arms.

“The one you have to be really afraid of is Neng,” the uncle went on.

“Neng?”

“Tijlaug’s twin sister. She’s really bad. I mean, she’s the demon seed. She will do anything she can to harm humans. And family pets. Her name means shaman, and she loves more than anything to take over people she thinks are phony.”

My God. Siberio. He’d just gone down into the panic room with Blossom, Akua, and…Keej.

The cold breath at my neck turned into a bite. I felt a pair of teeth chomp into me and I began to choke.

I dropped the phone. “Tem. Help me.”

And then the world went black.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 12th of Never – FREE Blog Story a New Chapter Every Three Weeks!

12th of Never

The 12th of Never

By A.J. Llewellyn

Cover Art: Sara York

Chapters: One Through Seven

 

 

Chapter One

Johnny April sat against the warm rocks in the sun and sighed. He’d begun to hate the beach but today, with the weather so lovely and sandpipers showing off for him, he believed in the sound and swell of the ocean again.

There was another reason, too. The man he’d been watching for two days now. He too, would stop doing his tai chi exercises at the shoreline, and laugh as the sandpipers dive-bombed the ocean waves, their little webbed feet sticking out of the water before raising their heads, squawking at the sky.

The man was beautiful. Just beautiful. He had dark hair that could probably be described as shaggy and a sinewy, surfer’s body. But he was blond-haired Johnny’s ideal kind of guy. Johnny watched  the man’s graceful moves as he completed his morning ritual. Johnny knew that once he was done, the man would plunge into the water to surf.

When he turned and smiled at Johnny, suddenly the beach didn’t seem like his enemy anymore.

The man had glanced back a couple of times to look at him and each time, Johnny had let his gaze fall away. His stomach rumbled now. He turned his head and watched the final construction of the Ferris wheel taking place at the Ventura County Fair.

Another seaside town, another fairground.

His stomach began to growl. He could smell funnel cake and molten toffee for apples on the breeze. He would have bought some funnel cake if he had any money, but he didn’t.

Johnny’s gaze flew back to the shoreline, where the tai chi guy was slipping his wetsuit on over his board shorts. He glanced at Johnny, their gazes holding. Johnny felt the familiar tug of attraction scissor through his body.

It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to like another guy, mostly because he didn’t know what he’d say if the guy even approached him. The more serious reason was that his father though homosexuality was disgusting and there was little Johnny could do to stand up to him.

He rose from the sand, dusting off his legs and began to walk back to the camping site beside the fairground. The dark-haired, handsome man’s face would be burned in his mind for a long time, but he had to stop thinking about him. It was no use.

Johnny hadn’t walked very far when a voice behind him said, “Hey.”

He stopped, swallowed hard and suddenly couldn’t breathe. Johnny had no social skills to speak of, outside of selling tickets and smiling like a fool at potential customers.

“Dude.” The man behind him began to laugh and Johnny slowly turned. The tai chi guy gave him a quizzical look. “My name is Mike Monroe.” He held out his hand and Johnny took it. They shook hands, their gazes locking. Johnny luxuriated in the brief moment of contact.

“Johnny April,” he said. He liked the feel of Mike Monroe’s hand. The cold, rough, yet soft texture of his skin. He smelled good, too. Only, he couldn’t identify the origin of the scent.

“You’re not staying to watch me?” Mike asked. They were still holding hands.

Johnny didn’t want to let go, but did. Maybe it was his imagination but it seemed to him that Mike hadn’t wanted to let go, either.

“I have to get ready for work.” Johnny hated his life. Hated the way things had turned out. He often dreamed of running away but it never happened. The only reason he stayed was that he was the eldest and he worried about his mom and eight siblings. He could take his dad’s rage. He preferred it over Dominic April venting his spleen at the others.

“Work already?” Mike Monroe’s dark, deep yes held a light, a gleam, that Johnny felt was missing from his own soul. He wanted to stay and watch.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he blurted.

Mike quirked a brow at him. “Tomorrow? You mean you work all day?”

“Yep.”

That seemed to stump the surfer. “What do you do at the fair?”

“I’m the magician’s assistant.”

Mike stared at him. Johnny detected some disbelief. Well, he couldn’t help that. It was true. He gave the guy a friendly wave and kept moving back up to the road. He waited for the traffic to thin out and ran across the two-lane highway.  It might not have been the smartest thing to do but Johnny secretly hoped some fast-moving vehicle would take him out. That would be one way to get out of a long day of nonsense.

Not that what his father did was nonsense. He was a magician, a real magician, but hid his talent behind the usual fairground crap – “Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” Occasionally, he’d make hecklers in the audience disappear.

On more than one occasion, alcohol had been involved on both sides and Johnny and his mom, Oxandia, had to beg Dominic to bring the offender back.

Dominic April might have been the best magician in the world, but magic had brought him nothing but trouble. When he used it, really used it, it was mercurial and usually brought disaster. His drinking had affected his work. Always had.

Until the night of Johnny’s eighth birthday, it hadn’t been difficult growing up in a house of magic. Simply because on that night, after the best birthday of his life, Johnny’s father had done something terrible. He’d fought with his brother, Johnny’s uncle and made him vanish.

Dominic hadn’t even tried to bring his brother back. He’d just packed up the family in the middle of the night and taken off for a life on the road. Sometimes, late at night when he was feeling especially melancholy, he’d confide in his wife saying he didn’t think he could ever bring Sebastian “back from the abyss.”

Over the years Johnny felt helpless rage and deep sadness over the abandoned gifts and almost all the other personal belongings he’d been forced to leave behind. He would think about his uncle, too, but Sebastian was as remote as Santa Claus, whom Johnny had never been allowed to believe in.

Even though, he secretly did…

Now nineteen, Johnny was still under his father’s thumb because he’d never been enrolled in school. He had no formal identification, no real education and no way to extract himself from his domineering and increasingly crazy father.

For thirteen years, Dominic April had forced his family to travel from one beachside town to another, following the annual fairs all across America. He would perform feats of magic and make enough money to keep the old Winnebago going and to feed his wife and now, nine children.

Johnny had grown up with a warped sense of romance because he’d been forced to listen to his parents’ activities each night. When the family had first left their home in Summerland, California, there had been three children. With each successive year came new pregnancies, more babies.  Now his mom was pregnant again after a blissful space between kids.

They were arguing. He could hear his father’s belligerent tone as he made his way across the already sweltering asphalt parking lot and over to the family’s campsite. This one was better than most, with hot and cold shower water, cheap food stalls and proper toilets.

Johnny was halfway through reading a paperback him mom had found in the women’s restroom. Reading was his refuge. Reading was his life. She’d worked with him, and all the kids, teaching them to read and write. They read newspapers together and books they found. They scrounged free reading material at libraries and homeless shelters when Dominic was too drunk to perform and couldn’t feed his family.

Heart racing as he neared the family’s caravan, Johnny wondered how on earth he and his siblings had managed to fall through the cracks of the system. Hadn’t any of the people he’d met over the years thought it was weird that the April kids were never in school and appeared to work year round?

Johnny reached the picnic table beside the caravan where most of the kids were clustered. He saw that his mom had produced several piles of toast and a big pot of coffee. The younger kids were sipping on juice boxes. Johnny poured himself some coffee and grabbed a slice. He’d long ago learned to fill up on coffee. Today wouldn’t be bad though. He’d get some food by lunchtime because his mom would make sure they all got to eat something.

He suddenly smelled teriyaki sauce and his mom shot him a fearful look.

“Is that your stomach growling?”

He swallowed and nodded.

“Have another piece of toast,” she whispered.

From inside the Winnebago, his father slurred, “Don’t encourage him, he’s too fat already!”

His mother put a hand over her stomach. Morning  sickness had really affected her this time. The last two times actually. She only ever saw doctors when she was giving birth. The family had left a trail of debt all over the country.

Some of the kids laughed. They never took their father seriously, because they’d never experienced his wrath first-hand. They only heard the way he treated his wife and oldest son. And besides, no way in hell was Johnny fat. He was skinny. Very skinny. He sculled the hot coffee and declined the toast when it became obvious the other kids were ravenous.

His mother surreptitiously shooed him away. Her flapping hand gesture was offensive but also helpful. When his dad was in this kind of mood anything was possible. And if he was this drunk now, he might not be able to perform.

His mother knew his father’s moods and if Johnny might be in danger. She had grown accustomed to waving her son away until Dominic’s fearsome temper had abated. Johnny had recurring fantasies of leaving his father on a curb somewhere and taking the rest of his family away in the Winnebago. Except that he couldn’t drive.

He bit his lip.

“I’ll be okay,” his mom whispered. A couple of the other kids caught the tremor of fear rippling between them and stopped eating.

“Be back in a few minutes,” Johnny said, giving the others a reassuring grin. He walked off quickly, crossing the road and found Mike out on the water now, waiting for a wave. Mike beckoned him.

“Come on in,” he called out. “The water’s fine.”

Johnny’s only stab at control was to occasionally follow his heart. He wavered for a moment, petrified his father would catch him out in the ocean with another man.

Ah, to hell with it. He strode into the water in his white tank top and cut-off jeans, Mike laughing at him. Johnny was a strong swimmer. A good swimmer. He reached the surfer who hauled him up to the nine foot long pintail and Johnny sat in front of him.

Mike wrapped his arms around Johnny, his lips tickling Johnny’s ear, his voice tickling Johnny’s soul.

“Glad you came back.”

“Me, too.” Johnny’s voice cracked in total terror as Mike began positioning the board for an oncoming wave.

He’d just seen his father at the shoreline.

Oh, God no.

His father began to shriek and point, his rage mirrored by sudden, dark clouds appearing above them. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked.

Mike stopped swishing the waves with his hands. “What the…

“You’re a faggot!” Dominic screamed at his son. “Do you repent your sins?”

What sins? I’ve done nothing wrong! Johnny didn’t say the words aloud. His father hadn’t been like this for…years.

“Tell me you repent. And I’ll let you live, you little fuck!”

“Who the hell is he?” Mike rasped in his ear.

“My father.”

“Goddamn. He’s—”

But Mike’s words became swallowed by a tide of rain and crackles of thunder.

“You are banished!” Dominic April screamed from the shoreline. He pointed to his son who felt a rush of fire in his throat.

And then his father shouted, “You can come back on the twelfth of never!”

“What’s going on?” Mike cried out. “What’s he doing to me?”

Indeed, Mike was burning up, but so was Johnny. He felt himself lifting from the board, Mike’s arms holding onto his waist as Johnny began to spin and spin, the clouds, rain and smoke beginning to disappear.

Johnny yelled into the wind as Mike’s hands slipped from his body. His father’s mad laughter rang in his ears and then…

Nothing…

 

 

Chapter Two

Johnny heard sounds. Fairground sounds as he slid from a strange darkness and hit the ground. Hard. It was night. Man, how much time had he lost?

He looked around him, the crowd thick and the air strangely acrid as he tried to get up off the ground.

“Easy,” a male voice said, and Johnny turned to thank the man, only he wasn’t talking to Johnny, he was talking to the collection of people gathered around the still-prone Johnny.

The man wore a ridiculous lion-tamer getup and brandished a whip.

“Is he one of the sideshow freaks, Papa?” a little boy asked.

Sideshow freak? Me? Johnny tried to stand, but his body felt weak, bizarrely so, as if he’d somehow lost every bone in his body. He began to fear the crowd peering down at him. Some man with a massive camera took his photo. The flash almost blinded Johnny. Then he understood the acrid smell. That was some old-fashioned camera. His father had shown him one years ago when they’d toured a fairground in Texas.

The old cameras operated with a small amount of gunpowder.

“What is he? Half man, half…fish?” The little kid sneered down on Johnny who had no idea what the child was talking about until he glanced at his suddenly itchy feet and realized he was wearing his board shorts and that his body was covered in long strands of seaweed.

He struggled to rise, wondering who the hell these people were. They were all dressed oddly. It wasn’t so strange in the south or way up in New England where people were inclined to live in isolated communities, but in California, it was damned weird. Johnny got to his knees, the crowd letting out a collective “ooh,” as the seaweed fell away from his body.

“Do you think he is dangerous, Papa?” The kid looked frightened now. Papa appeared to be the man with the whip in his hand, and Johnny could tell the guy was surreptitiously coiling it into a tighter loop, the better to lash out and beat Johnny with it.

Somebody stepped out of the crowd to help him, bending down. Johnny saw a long dress with a lace petticoat peeking from under it and tiny black shoes.

“Thank you.” Johnny went to reach for her hand, but she had none. She was an armless woman.” The crowd roared with laughter and embarrassment sent his cheeks aflame.

“Hold my shoulder,” the woman said. “I’m strong.”

He did as she suggested and she was strong. And not very happy. Her halo of dark, tight curls framed a thin, tired, face.

“Thank you,” he said again, his whole body burning as he tried to stand on his own.

“Hold onto me,” she said, in a curious accent and led him away from the crowd. She moved briskly, but only Johnny’s left leg worked. His right one dragged behind him. She slowed a little, but he was able to keep up with her now. She led him through a set of thick, red velvet curtains.

“I have to go on stage,” she whispered. “Myrtle’s in that room over there.” She jutted her chin to the left and he caught a glimpse of blonde hair. “She’s really a very sweet girl.”

Johnny thanked the armless woman again, his words drowned out by a man yelling to the appreciative crowd, “Step right up, folks! Come and see the famous armless woman!”

He watched through a sliver of space in the heavy curtains separating the stage from the backstage area and was horrified to see a young boy with hair all over his face, on his knees, acting like a dog, the man with the whip cracking it dangerously close to the boy’s body. The hirsute  boy managed to avoid the lash, darting off stage by throwing himself under the hem of the curtain. The crowd roared its disappointment.

The armless lady walked on stage and stood there, a look of deep humiliation on her face. She was older than she first appeared and something about her stirred a deep memory within Johnny. Myrtle with the blonde hair popped her head out of the door where she’d been watching him.

She wore a very ornate Victorian-style dress, her top half narrow and trim, the bottom half surprisingly wide. He stared at her knee area as she stood, beckoning him.

Something was kicking as she spoke to him. He couldn’t tear his gaze away, even as she said, “Are you new here?”

When he didn’t respond, she moved back inside. He followed her to a room where another hairy man sat, reading a newspaper. Myrtle took up her position beside him, indicating the chair opposite her for Johnny to sit.

He stared as Myrtle’s knee area continued to jump and kick. With a sigh, she pulled up her petticoat skirts.

The woman had four legs. Two full-length ones and two short ones. All wore white stockings with black ankle boots. The two shorter legs stopped kicking.

Johnny blinked. He knew who she was now, but it was impossible.

Just impossible.

“Are you…” He swallowed. “Are you Myrtle Corbin?”

She smiled. “Yes, I am. Have we met?” She looked a little confused.

“No. No. We’ve never met.” He was beginning to panic now. Myrtle Corbin had been a circus sideshow freak a long time ago. He’d read about her and seen photos of her. She had, as far as he could recall, died in the 1920′s.

He glanced at the newspaper the hairy man was reading. He couldn’t read the headline.

“Where are we?” Johnny asked.

“Why, don’t you know?” Myrtle looked stunned.

“No. I had a little …accident.” When he thought about his father banishing him and the strange moon he’d seen, a flash of thunder and lightning. Wait. What moon? Ah. He remembered now. A strange yellow moon had haunted his dark tumble into the abyss.

Myrtle and the hairy man stared at him, then from outside on the stage area came the loud roar of laughter.

“Poor Anne. She only does this to survive. Most nights she cries herself to sleep,” Myrtle said, then bit her lip. “Please don’t tell her I told you that.”

“I won’t.” Johnny could see the newspaper’s masthead now. The Cleburne Times. Cleburne, Texas. He knew that Myrtle had died there, but she seemed the picture of health. The hairy man, who turned out to be Lionel, the lion-faced man, rose from his seat as the circus announcer called out his name.

“Can I look at your paper, please?” Johnny asked.

“Don’t you mean may I?” Lionel asked.

“Of course. I am sorry.” It wasn’t the first time Johnny had been forced to apologize for his lack of education. He took hold of the paper as Lionel left the room. Johnny felt sincerely sorry for the man who appeared to be completely covered in coarse, brown hair.

Johnny wanted to read the headlines, figure out what year it was.

Had he really gone back to the 1920′s?

How could he go back to the future and rescue his mom and siblings?

And…he suddenly remembered Mike. Where was he? Had Johnny’s father hurt him?

Myrtle was sobbing quietly.

“Are you all right?” he asked, surprised when his legs worked and he was able to get to her.

“I can feel my baby kicking,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

She shook her head. “A phantom pregnancy. I already have five children, but I lost one. I dream of her sometimes. They forced me to abort her. She was a girl.”

“I’m sorry.” Johnny had to get out of here. He moved to the door. Myrtle was still sobbing. The world had become a weird and terrible place. He wanted to cry and scream all at the same time.

He pushed his way out of his misery and out toward the crowd outside the velvet curtains. He was stunned to see Mike on the outskirts of the audience. Their gazes held. Johnny rushed over to him.

“Where the hell are we?” Mike asked. “And where the fuck is the beach?”

Johnny couldn’t believe Mike was here. His gaze flew to the man’s troubled eyes.

“We’re in Texas,” Johnny said. “Cleburne, Texas.”

“Say…what?”

“I don’t know how. But I think we’ve gone back in time.”

“You’re nuts. You know that?” Mike pushed himself away from Johnny, backing into somebody. It was armless Annie. Mike’s mouth opened in a silent scream. He kept shaking his head, his jaw slack as he backed into another circus freak.

And ran.

Johnny went after him, but Mike shouted at him.

“Stay away from me! Stay the fuck away!”

Johnny stopped running. He turned and found Annie watching him, a look of anguish on her face.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “He meant no disrespect. He’s frightened—”

“Of me?” She looked devastated.

Brilliant, Johnny. Way to go upsetting the one person who’s been nice to you. “No. Of me. It’s my fault we came here.”

She looked at him, her bright, inquisitive eyes filled with compassion. He saw a sign now saying P. T. Barnum above the stage. He’d spent his whole life trying to get away from circuses and fairgrounds. Now he was in the thick of a master showman’s sideshow. He could practically smell the misery around him.

“Johnny.”

He stiffened slightly when he heard Mike’s voice. He turned slowly and found the surfer standing there, his surfboard in hand, covered in seaweed.

“I found my stick,” he said. “I’m sorry I freaked out.”

“I must go,” Annie said and ran off as soon as Johnny turned back to look at her.

“Glad you found it,” he told Mike.

“Care to explain how we got here?” Mike looked like he was really struggling with all of this. Johnny couldn’t begin to explain.

A crack of thunder shot overhead.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

“How do we get back, Toto?” Mike gave him the hint of a smile.

Johnny let out a sigh. If going back meant a beating from his dad and not being near Mike, he didn’t want it right now.

“I don’t know,” Johnny said again. He walked closer to Mike and they left the confines of the showground. He was so impressed with some of the antique vehicles they spotted, not to mention the horses and buggies, that he missed Mike’s next statement.

“I’m sorry, Mike. What did you say?”

“I said, I want to kiss you. Then I want to figure out how the hell we get out of this place. Did you see some of those circus freaks?”

“Yeah, I did.” It was hard to believe people’s birth defects had set them up for ridicule this way.

“Fish boy!” A female voice called out. It took Johnny a moment to realize it was Annie calling after him. And she was referring to him.

Fish boy?

“Are you hungry?” she asked Johnny and Mike. “Only, I just cooked a wonderful stew and there’s plenty of food. You’re most welcome to join us.”

“I’m starved,” Mike said, his apparent urge to kiss Johnny now forgotten. Johnny had never kissed another man and wanted to, desperately, except Mike and Annie had started walking toward the circus grounds again.

Johnny followed, aware of his acute hunger, as well as his neglected passions. He glanced up at the sky and saw that yellow moon.

The crack of thunder and flash of lightning that greeted his gaze threw him up and back with a real, physical force.

“Noooooo!” he screamed as he circled once again back into the void.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

“Johnny. Johnny?”

The voice came from far away, a hot, bright light hit him in the eyes as he struggled to keep them open.

“Hurts,” he muttered, and moved, the taste of sand in his face.

“You had a bad wipeout,” Mike said, leaning over him. “Are you okay?”

Johnny sat up, aware of the crowd around him.

“I wiped out?” Every muscle in his body ached, his stomach cramped. He must have swallowed a boatload of water.

“Stand back,” another voice said. “Come on, folks. Give him some space. Geez.”

Johnny felt sheer relief when the people began to move back. He caught a bit of ocean breeze, breathed deeply and began to cough. Bits of salt and briny water rose in his mouth. And blood.

What the hell happened to me? His body ached so badly he guessed that the man standing beside Mike, was a lifeguard. He’d probably done CPR on Johnny and none too gently at that.

“Where am I?” Johnny asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Ventura beach. You mean you don’t remember?” Mike leaned down to him, concern etched in his features. “We wiped out on my board. Biggest fuckin’ wave I ever saw. Hey, you think you can stand up?”

“I guess.”

“Come on people, show’s over,” the lifeguard announced, pushing people back. He sound really irritated now. Since Johnny seemed okay, the looky-loos began to drift away. Thank God.

Johnny tried to rise but his legs wobbled. His right leg stung like hell. That was when he noticed he was sitting on top of a box jellyfish, its tentacles wrapped around his ankle.

“Holy shit,” the lifeguard muttered. “I didn’t notice that before.” He knelt beside Johnny, whose leg throbbed now, his head hammering along in unison. The lifeguard donned work gloves and removed the tentacles. The jellyfish was still alive and tried to wrap its painful tendrils around Johnny’s left foot now.

It was hard to act macho when he wanted to scream and cry, but Johnny watched the lifeguard dump the sea creature into a bucket. “Gotta get vinegar out of the car. Be right back,” the guy muttered.

As Johnny waited, Mike hunkered beside him. “I could pee on your leg. That’ll take the pain away.”

“Sure,” Johnny said. Pee worked better than vinegar, but the lifeguard was back, opening a plastic gallon bottle of vinegar and doused Johnny’s red and swollen leg with it.

Ah, much better. “Thanks.”

“No problem. You want to go to the hospital or—”

“No,” Johnny and Mike said in unison. Johnny very rarely saw medical personnel. It opened up too many questions since he had no ID and his father was paranoid about those in authority.

“I live right across the road,” Mike said. “I can take care of him.”

The lifeguard nodded. “Keep him out of the water the rest of the day, yeah?”

“Will do.”

Johnny thanked the guy again and received a friendly wave as he got to his feet and hobbled across the sand with Mike, who put his arm around Johnny and helped him.

“I tried to grab you but that wave was so fuckin’ huge man, you were all the way to the bottom of it. And then the lifeguard came.” Mike held him a little tighter. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.” Johnny already knew that he’d have a huge bruise all over his chest and belly by tomorrow. Man, the weird dream he’d had of the four-legged circus freak and the armless woman…

He almost fell over when they reached the highway and he saw that the county fair was gone.

“How…when…did the fair close down?”

“No idea,” Mike said. “I think it was last weekend, wasn’t it?” He was clearly distracted. “Can you make a run for it as soon as there’s a break in traffic?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll help you. Okay, run!” Mike kept his arm around Johnny, the other clutching his board. Across the road, he kept his grip on Johnny and led him down a small alleyway between two beach-style apartment buildings.

Johnny had never been inside any of these places, though over the years, he’d wondered about who lived there and what they were like inside. Apartment buildings jostled for space with cottages that went uphill towards the Santa Susana Mountains framing the beachside town away from the ocean. Half a block up, he turned right, Johnny almost colliding with him as Mike began climbing stairs to a second-floor unit. Mike took it slowly.

“Easy,” he said.

Yeah, easy for him to say. Johnny was in pain, his equilibrium really off and now his leg was throbbing again. He held onto the chipped wooden railing as they moved up the stairs to the small patio. Mike pushed open the screen door, thrust open the warped wooden door and Johnny stepped inside.

He immediately felt better. Mike was a surf bum. All his surfing posters, which revealed an obsession with big wave rider Laird Hamilton and The Endless Summer, the godfather of surfing movies, Johnny was relieved the guy seemed normal. After all, who knew what lurked in a stranger’s home? Ever since his mom had bought a small TV and they’d been able to catch up on crime shows, Johnny had begun to learn his dad wasn’t the only weirdo out there.

“Get your clothes off and get into the shower,” Mike said. He was stripping before Johnny could even blink.

Mike naked, was a treasure to behold. His cock was enormous. Simply huge and wonderful looking. Johnny took off his board shorts and left them on the living room floor like Mike had left his.

For a moment, Johnny simply stood and luxuriated in the space around him. It had been years since he’d been able to reach out and not touch walls on either side of him. He grinned as he followed Mike into the bathroom. He’d just noticed the kitchen and the stacks of cereal boxes on the table. Johnny hadn’t been allowed to touch commercial food since he was five. And his father would flip out if Johnny ate packaged cereal. His father believed subliminal messages were hidden on the boxes urging kids to kill and commit crimes. Not to mention the drugs he insisted were infused in the cereals themselves…

Considering my upbringing, I think I’m doing pretty well. I should be barking mad by now. Johnny stepped into the bathtub with Mike, wondering if perhaps he were more than slightly crazy. After all, his parents had vanished and he’d had the strange experience in the circus sideshow.

Mike gripped his shoulders. “I’m going to pee on your leg. We’ll let it dry off then you can take a shower later.”

He kissed Johnny lightly on the lips. Johnny almost swooned. And then he felt the hot liquid cascading down his leg. It should have been icky, but it wasn’t. He wanted another kiss. That’s what he wanted.

“Stay there a moment,” Mike said. “Let it air dry. I’m gonna make some coffee. Want a cup?”

“I’d love one, thanks. And can I please have some cereal?”

Mike grinned. “Sure you can.”

Johnny waited alone in the tub. He could hear Mike singing some off-key song in the kitchen. For some reason, it made him absurdly happy. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t listening to  his father spouting forth his absurd, paranoid bullshit.

He looked out of the small bathroom window, loving the smell of the ocean. The fairgrounds were empty. He could hear the faint cry of seagulls. All utterly normal.

Yet, absolutely weird.

“Come on out,” Mike called.

Johnny obeyed. “Should I put my shorts on?” he asked when he reached the kitchen.

“No. Do you want to put your shorts on?”

Johnny shook his head, especially when he realized that Mike was still naked, too. He took a seat at the table.

“You tried Apple Jacks?” Mike asked. “They’re my favorite. He handed Johnny a bowl and spoon and dropped a huge carton of milk on the table. Johnny poured and ate, checking out the missing kid on the side of the carton. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see his own image there.

“These are good,” Johnny muttered around a mouthful of lime green o-shaped cereal nuggets.

Mike grinned. “My ex says they’re little kids’ food but I love ‘em.”

Johnny ate two bowls and felt more full than he could remember. He was usually left starving after family meals. The only time he wasn’t hungry was during fairs when stall holders sneaked food to him and his siblings.

He tried not to worry about the younger ones and hoped they were all right.

“Everything okay?” Mike asked.

“Wonderful, thank you.”

“How’s the leg?”

“It feels good. Thank you.”

“Here. Take a couple of Motrin, they’ll help. I bet you have a headache.”

“Thanks. I do.” Johnny popped the pills Mike handed him and spooned the rest of the milk from his bowl into his mouth.

“You want some ice cream?” Mike asked.

“Ice cream?”Johnny couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten ice cream. His father said it was a crime against children or some such rubbish.

Mike scooped some pecan praline into his own bowl, put some into Johnny’s, then offered him corn flakes to put over the top of it. Johnny had never had anything like it. He fell in love after the first taste.

“Good, huh?” Mike licked the scoop, then flung it into the sink.

Johnny followed Mike over to the sofa where they finished what the other man called their crunchy ice cream, coffee and watched some crazy cooking show on TV where two surfers traveled around Australia and made fish in a dishwashing machine.

“We should try that,” Mike said, powering off the TV as the two surfers got back into their VW van and tootled off to their next adventure.

“How’s the leg?” Mike asked, leaning closer to him.

“It feels good.”

Mike smiled. “I’m glad.” He reached up and kissed Johnny, his hand playing lightly at the wisps of hair on the nape of Johnny’s neck.

Johnny liked the way Mike kissed. He loved the softness of the man’s lips, yet the full insistence of their embrace. He liked the man’s tongue, testing, tasting him. Their kiss went on. When Mike got to his knees and leaned in closer, Johnny could see the guy’s cock was rigid and sticking right out at him.

Oh…

Johnny reached out and touched it, Mike reacting instantly. His cock jerked a little, landing right into the palm of Johnny’s hand. Mike pushed Johnny back. Johnny didn’t mind losing contact with that magnificent cock, not when Mike was kissing his way down Johnny’s chest. But still

Mike kissed and licked Johnny’s nipples, ignoring Johnny’s raging hard on. He took his time. Johnny had never had his nipples touched before and liked the sensation of Mike’s fingers and tongue on them.

He tried to ignore the smell of pee on his leg as Mike moved down, grazing Johnny’s hip bone with his tongue.

“Wow,” Mike said, looking up. “I’ve never seen such a full-grown pubic bush before.” He dropped his head, kissing Johnny’s groin.

Johnny wanted to die of embarrassment. He had no idea he was supposed to…groom the hair down there. Now that he thought about it, he’d noticed only a small amount on Mike.

But Mike seemed mesmerized with Johnny’s cock now. He began to suck and lick it, moaning loudly, his eyes ablaze with desire.

Johnny prayed he could last long enough to enjoy it. He thought he was going to come on the spot when Mike sucked the head of his cock into his tightly drawn lips, but then he released Johnny again.

Mike began to lick the shaft now, patiently, like a cat. Johnny felt drowsy with the full throttle pleasure beginning to burn inside him. It reminded him of the low heat his mother would use on the rare occasions she slow-cooked vegetable stew.

Only this was all his. All for him.

Johnny twisted and turned in pleasure as Mike ran his fingers up and down Johnny’s body and sucked his cock with determination. Johnny hoped Mike would come off him again because Johnny didn’t know how to hold it.

When Mike drew almost every inch of Johnny’s length into his mouth and throat, it was too much. Johnny came hard, letting out a shout.

Mike didn’t let up, sucking, licking, teasing every last drop out of him.

Then suddenly, Johnny had the urge to pee.

“Take a shower and wash the pee off,” Mike urged, “then come right back here.”

Johnny was still rock hard as he gave Mike a kiss and wandered off to the bathroom. He walked in, astonished to find the four-legged woman sitting on the toilet.

“What are you doing in here?” she shouted.

And then, she began to scream.

 

 

 Chapter Four

Something weird was happening to Johnny and he couldn’t begin to explain things to Mike. When the four-legged lady started screaming, Johnny covered his ears and closed his eyes—tightly. He could still hear her anguished cries, but could hardly believe it when Mike arrived and she was no longer there.

He insisted he’d only heard Johnny screaming. He saw no four-legged lady and kept looking at Johnny as if he’d gone nuts.

“But she was there,” Johnny finished lamely. “You mean, you really didn’t see her?”

“Johnny, what’s this about?” Mike asked. His tone was kind, gentle. “You on some weird acid trip, or something?” Before Johnny could respond, Mike said, “It’s because of the wipeout. Almost drowning does weird things to the equilibrium.”

“I—” Johnny knew it had nothing to do with a wipeout. He knew he hadn’t wiped out. It was Dad’s magic. He could still remember the old man’s chilling words. “You can come back on the twelfth of never!”

He began to shiver and Mike put his arms around him. “Come on, Johnny. I’ll make you a strong cup of tea.”

Johnny allowed Mike to lead him back to the kitchen. He watched the man move around the cluttered bench top as the kettle’s whistle began to sing.

“I’m adding sugar. They say it’s good for shock,” Mike said, looking at him over his shoulder.

“Shock?” Johnny supposed he was in a kind of shocked state. He toyed with a round, lime-green O that must have fallen from the breakfast cereal box. Across the table, an orange one sat. He reached for it, pressing the two pieces together. The colors and the O’s fit. Just like he and Mike did. He longed to get frisky with the guy again. He eyed the strong, hot liquid in front of him. Keeping the cereal in his left hand, he picked up the cup with other and sipped.

“Take your time,” Mike said. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Johnny nodded.  He didn’t mind having a burned upper lip and tongue. Mike didn’t know what it was like growing up with a caravan full of people who never got enough sustenance.  None of them let their food or drink alone too long, because it soon found its way into somebody else’s hands.

Mike sat opposite him, watching him. Johnny could tell the guy was assessing him.

He thinks I’m crazy. Maybe I am.

Johnny knew he wasn’t. His father was. But if you live with crazy long enough, you can become pretty out there, too.

“What do you remember about the wipeout?” Mike asked, surprising him.

“Nothing,” Johnny admitted.

“Do you remember sitting on the board with me?”

Johnny frowned, concentrating. The tea was good. Very good. Strong, English tea with sugar in it. He could see himself becoming obsessed with it.  He’d always been like that. He’d discover new foods and eat them, disregarding everything else. It had been like that with mangoes, strawberries—

“I remember now.” Johnny could, actually. He’d been sitting behind Mike, arms around his waist as they waited for a wave. “My father stood at the shoreline screaming at us.”

“Yeah.” Mike’s face took on an odd expression. “He’s a laugh a minute, isn’t he?” He paused as Johnny’s face turned red. “He really doesn’t like having a gay son, does he.” It was a statement, not a question.

“He knows I’ve never been with a man,” Johnny said. “The one time I almost was, he stopped it.”

Mike held up a hand. “Wait. Are you…for real? You’ve never been with a man?”

Johnny wished there was way more tea in the cup. He wished it would leap out and swallow him whole. Like a tsunami. He closed his eyes.

“Until what happened here on the sofa, no. I’ve never been with a man.”

Mike sat back in his chair, staring at him.

Johnny became inexplicably filled with terror that he could feel his fingers tightening on the two pieces of cereal in his hand. He glanced down. The two O’s had turned to brightly colored dust particles. Crushed.

Had he just crushed any hope of being with Mike?

“Wow,” Mike said.”A virgin. That explains some things.” He sat up again. “Were you nervous being with me?”

“A little.”

“But not worried?”

“Why would I worry?”

“I don’t know. I’m just wondering. You thought you saw a lady with four legs sitting on the toilet seat. Maybe you freaked out a little.”

Johnny smiled because it did sound crazy, actually. “So you don’t remember the circus? I did see you there,” he said.

“A circus? I wasn’t at no circus, Johnny. I’m telling you, it was the wipeout.  Look, funny things happen to people when they get slammed by a big wave. Some people see their lives flash before their eyes. Some people get a sense of being in a fight, like an actual fight. They feel like they got hit by a big punch and it’s them against the wave.”

“That makes sense.” Johnny wondered if Mike were right. If so, what the hell had happened to his family? And the county fair? Where had it all vanished to?

“Of course it makes sense.” Mike seemed to be excited about his theory now. “I have a friend who wiped out and told me he woke up in the desert, with all these birds of prey circling him. He told me some weird shit. He saw some sherpa bleeding a camel. He suddenly knew all this shit about the world he never knew before. Life stuff, you know? Not life stuff. More…survivalist stuff now I think about it. My friend’s been kinds weird since then.”

“Weird, how?” Johnny really wanted to know. He still wasn’t convinced the circus side show hadn’t happened; that he hadn’t been there. It seemed real. Too real.

“Well, I don’t know how to explain it. He’s just different. He changed his name to Sudan, if you can believe it. A lifelong surfer is now committed to the desert. He takes people out on visionquests. He’s gone all Native American now.”

“Was he your lover?” Johnny couldn’t resist the question. There was something in Mike’s tone that suggested abandonment.

“Yes, he was.” Mike shook his head. “Funny you should pick up on that. You want another cup of tea?”

“I’d prefer to have more sex.”

“Have another cup first.” Mike’s edge of anxiety seemed to creep back into his voice. Johnny had an inkling the guy wanted to make sure Johnny wasn’t a complete lunatic before getting down and dirty with him again.

“You ever see him?” he asked as Mike made more tea.

“Who? Sudan? No. Never. I hate the desert. I feel landlocked there and he hates the ocean. He’s afraid of it.” He shook his head. “When I met him, he went by the name Missouri. Had some weird, freak accident on a river and then became Swell and lived on the beach. I mean, literally on the beach.”

“He sounds almost like me,” Johnny said.

“You live on the beach?”

“Lots of them. My family’s been traveling around in a caravan since I was a kid. We camp at beaches all over the country.”

Mike turned and stared at him. “Seriously?”

Johnny nodded. He was worried about the smaller kids in the family now. Without him to buffer them from his father’s daily outbursts, were they okay?”

“What about school?”

“Never been,” Johnny said.

Mike gaped at him. “You’ve never been to school?”As Johnny shook his head, he said, “Can you read and write?”

“Sure I can. My mom taught me. I know some stuff, but I have no formal education.” He refrained from mentioning that his father’s idea of education was swiping medical journals from hospital lobbies and daily newspapers from mangled piles at Starbucks coffee shops and thrusting them into his kids’ hands. Johnny knew more about infectious diseases and Dow Trading than anyone had a right to know.

“Dang. That’s just fucked up, Johnny.”

The kettle whistled and Johnny found himself hankering for that second cup of tea.

Mike brought the cups over and they talked some more. He appeared fascinated with Johnny’s life up to this point.

“Do you remember my father yelling at us that day before we wiped out?” Johnny asked. Mike took too long to answer.

“No,” he said.

Johnny knew the guy was lying, but why? Mike eyed the wall clock.

“We can fool around a while longer, but I’m meeting up with some friends in a couple of hours to do some tow-surfing.”

Johnny nodded. “Okay, cool.” All he could think about how nice it would be to have Mike all over him again.

“Hey, you washed yourself yet?” Mike asked.

Johnny had to think. Man, his thoughts were fuzzy and all over the place. Maybe Mike was right and he’d suffered a bad wipeout that had messed him up. He remembered now  that he’d gone to the bathroom to shower off Mike’s pee from his leg.

“Drink up. We’ll shower together.” Mike grinned at him.

They finished quickly and raced to the bathroom. Mike ran the taps and they stepped under the cold spray as soon as Mike adjusted the water flow to run from the shower nozzle. Johnny luxuriated in the strong stream pouring down his head and neck. Mike was rubbing some silky soft, fruit-smelling gel all over his body. It was a far cry from the bar soap he shared with his family and the public showers they used at the camp grounds.

Mike’s hands felt so good as they squeezed Johnny’s shoulders and neck and moved down to cup his ass cheeks.

“You’ve got the perfect ass,” Mike said against his lips. Johnny could taste sea salt, tea, mil and cereal on the other man’s tongue as they began to kiss, their cocks colliding Mike moved one hand to Johnny’s cock, stroking it with a determined hand.

“Nice and big,” Mike said between kisses.

Johnny loved the other man’s tongue roaming his face and neck, the little, slick bites of his nipples. Everything Mike did made his cock grow harder and bigger. Johnny had never been so aware of the sensations stirred in his own body. He wanted Mike to feel good too.

Mike was no virgin and had no problem telling Johnny what he wanted.

“Suck my cock,” he commanded.

Johnny got to his knees wanting to do such a great job that Mike wouldn’t want to go tow-surfing, or anywhere else except maybe the bedroom.

Water splashed around them and Mike laughed, drawing the curtain around them.

Johnny stayed on his knees, ogling the object of all his fanatical desires and dreams. A big, beautiful, juicy cock just begging for his attention.

 

Mike brushed water out of Johnny’s eyes but more followed. Johnny gave a little cry and rubbed his face against Mike’s cock and balls, using both hands to capture the man’s cock. He took a deep breath and put his lips around the thick, wide cock head and suddenly heard a woman’s shill scream.

“Oh, fuck, what’s she yelling about now?” Mike suddenly asked and shoved the curtain back.

 

 

Chapter Five

Johnny was mortified when Mike thrust back the curtain. He spluttered as shower water poured into his mouth.

“What do you think you’re doing?” a woman shouted. She stood, hands on hips, looking ready for a fight. Johnny was relieved it wasn’t the four-legged woman, or the armless woman, but he had no idea who this fully-limbed one was. As he struggled to his feet, the woman seemed to be getting ready to really let Mike have it.

This fascinated Johnny rather than frightened him since he couldn’t recall his own mother ever allowing herself to express anger. She suffered in silence, when she wasn’t sobbing over her chores.

“Michael, honestly.” She reached in and turned off the shower taps, the two men cowering in the corner. Johnny hid behind Mike’s bigger bulk. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the woman hitting him, though he felt she probably could at any moment. He was embarrassed at being caught. With another man.

“Mom,” Mike said, sounding aggrieved. “Don’t you ever knock?”

“I didn’t know you had company.” She peered around Mike’s dripping back. “Hey there. I don’t bite. I just sound like I do.”

“Mom, do you mind?” Mike pulled the shower curtain around their bodies.

“Michael, I have seen naked men before. He’s a cutie pie.” She brushed back the curtain and stuck her hand out. “I’m Sharita. Nice to meet you.”

Johnny gulped. Both hands were busy covering his dangly bits. Her gaze drifted down and she could see that, but she kept her hand out just the same.

“Mom!” Mike said.

“Johnny April.” Johnny had always been taught to be polite to adults and he immediately shook the woman’s hand. She gave him a smile. She seemed to be working awfully hard to appear friendly and nice, but he could tell she was really pissed at Mike.

“I’ll make you boys some breakfast.” She turned and left the bathroom.

“We already ate,” Mike shouted, but she didn’t respond. She’d left the door ajar, possibly, Johnny thought, to prevent anymore hanky panky but he was keen to eat again. He’d never had so much food in his life. He was the first one out of the shower stall, toweling off quickly.

“You don’t have any other clothes,” Mike muttered. “Your shorts stink of pee. Come on, I’ll lend you something.”

Johnny was used to sharing clothes, even underpants with his Dad. In fact, he’d never worn first-hand clothing in his life and he felt a secret thrill when Mike tore open a plastic package of Calvin Klein boxer briefs and handed him a pair. He liked the hungry way Mike watched him slide the tight black underpants up his thighs and over his butt.

“Huh.” Mike cupped Johnny’s package, making Johnny bite his lip. “Sexy,” Mike muttered. Johnny leaned in for a kiss. Mike seemed to hesitate but gave him a quick one.

Johnny had never felt sexy before, but he did, not just because of Mike’s single word and the way he touched him, but because he was wearing the man’s clothes. There was something damned sexy about that.

“Come on, she’s making eggs,” Mike said, throwing on clean shorts and a T-shirt.

Johnny could smell them. Eggs. His father had always refused to have them in their food repertoire but Johnny had once caught him eating an omelet at a Denny’s during one long carnival circuit in the southwest. He’d been sent by his mom to find his father and it had shocked him to notice his father from the big windows out front. He’d entered the restaurant and hid behind a potted palm watching his old man eat. It was a big omelet and the sensual way he consumed every bite, moaning in ecstasy and closing his eyes with each mouthful had embarrassed Johnny.

He’d walked up to his father, furious that the mean old prick showed more love for a plate of food than even his own wife and said, “Ma’s looking for you.”

His father had opened his eyes in shock. Johnny left the restaurant but noticed that after a few uncertain seconds, his father went right on eating. Johnny had resented that meal. He’d eaten only apples for days. He and his dad never mentioned the incident, or the omelet again, but his father’s hypocrisy had burned in Johnny’s heart to this very day.

He walked down the hallway now, excited to try his first plate of home-cooked eggs. There was something about the smell. Comforting. Caring…

Johnny’s stomach growled and Mike, walking slightly ahead of him, turned in surprise. “You’re still hungry? Where do you put it all?”

In the kitchen, Mike’s mom had gone mad, making eggs, toast, and bacon.

Mike poured himself a cup of coffee and stood, watching Johnny try his first forkful of eggs.

“Anybody would think you’ve never tried them before,” Mike said.

Johnny tasted and chewed, though the eggs were slippery. Delicious, but not really chewy. “I haven’t,” he said.

Mike’s mother turned from the toaster and gaped at him. Mike stared at him over the rim of his cup.

“You’ve never had eggs?” she asked.

Johnny was embarrassed now. He felt like a freak.

Circus freak.

            Step right up folks and see the weird crazy boy who never ate eggs in his life!

Shame and terror almost stopped him, but he was too obsessed with the food. Maybe his dad had been right. The more food you ate, the more you craved it.

He took another bite as mother and son watched him with looks of pity.

“They are very good,” he said, hoping his cheeks weren’t as red as he thought they were.

Mike and his mom grinned then.

“She makes the best eggs.” Mike put his arm around her shoulders. She chuckled and brought a plate of hot buttered toast to the table. Mike sat then, pushing a second cup of coffee toward Johnny.

Johnny thanked him and began working out how he would eat, in case Mike or his mom got mad and took his food away, like Dad sometimes did.

“Her secret is cream cheese,” Mike said.

Cream cheese. It was one of the few cheeses Johnny had tried. He could even remember where. At a coffee shop in Half Moon Bay in Northern California. His father had taken the family up there one summer in the ill-thought hope that they could give surfing lessons to the local kids, but the summer had been a rough one full of wind and rain and the cops kept making the family move their caravan, treating them like vagrants. It had embarrassed Johnny until one night his father got drunk and threw a punch at a patrolling officer. He’d wound up arrested and thrown into the pokey for the night.

The police officers had gone through the caravan and muttered about the poor conditions the children endured. They’d given Johnny ten dollars out of their own pockets and that night, the April family went to the coffee shop near the shoreline and the staff there had given Johnny and his mom cappuccinos. The younger children got glasses of milk.

Then the staff produced day-old bagels that they toasted and slathered with cream cheese. It had all cost a lot more than ten dollars, but the staff said ten dollars was fine. They’d even brought two cup cakes over that the children split between them.

That had been a great day.

None of the family ever dared breathe a word of the forbidden food experiment to the old man but the kids sometimes mentioned it to Johnny and their mom.

Cream cheese. Yeah. It was so good. He took a bite of toast, then a bite of bacon. A sip of coffee. A bite of eggs. He ate each thing in turn so that he could savor the taste of each piece of food.

Mike watched him, an odd look on his face. “When did you last eat? Before this morning I mean?”

Johnny swallowed a piece of bacon and shrugged. “I can’t remember.”

His father called bacon heart attack food. Boy, what a way to go! This stuff was fantastic.

“Have mine,” Mike said, shoving the plate toward him.

“I’ll wash the dishes,” Johnny said, scooping Mike’s eggs onto his plate.

“You don’t need to do that.” Mike’s mom shook her head. “I enjoy watching you eat. You do it with such reverence.”

“I appreciate what you’ve given me to eat.” Johnny was afraid he would cry. “You’re both so nice.”

Mike grinned. “We’ll go for a surf as soon as you’re done.” He got up from the table and put his empty cup in the sink.

Johnny’s reaction surprised them all. “No!” he shouted. He dropped his fork on the floor, picked it up and apologized to Mike’s mom who smoothed his damp hair back from his face and said, “It’s nothing. I’ll get you a clean one.”

“You don’t want to go surfing?” Mike looked astonished.

“My leg still hurts from the jelly fish,” Johnny said, which was true.

“Oh, right. Sorry. I forgot.”

“Why don’t you stay here with me and we’ll have a nice chat. Mike, you go do your thing.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “He is not going to stay here and chat with you.”

Johnny ate faster. He could sense a storm brewing and he didn’t want to lose his food.

“Slow down,” Mike suddenly said. “Nobody’s taking it away from you.”

Johnny stopped eating, dropping his head in shame.

“Jesus,” Mike muttered when Johnny started to cry. His father was right. Food was evil. He’d been tempted. He’d been seduced. He now craved Mike. And food.

“Sweetie, you take your time,” Mike’s mom said, wrapping her arms around Johnny. She smelled sweet, like brown sugar. “You take your time and I’ll make lunch. Do you like roast lamb?”

Johnny stared at her. “Never had it.”

“Well.” She didn’t seem to know what to say to that. “Do you know how to shell peas?”

He smiled then. “Yes. Absolutely.”

“Well, you can help me. Finish your breakfast. Mike, go do your thing.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Mike said. “And he is not shelling peas with you.” He sat beside Johnny as if staring at him would make him eat faster.

“We don’t have to surf, but how about a walk on the beach?” Mike sounded desperate.

“Sure.” Johnny didn’t mind.

“You have a couple of hours,” Mike’s mom said. “I’m going to roast potatoes and turnips, too.”

Mike had the perfect mother, Johnny decided. It was hard to pull himself away from her and her fabulous eats, but Mike tugged at him. Johnny hugged Sharita who laughed, hugging him back.

“You’re adorable,” she said.

Mike opened the screen door and held it open for Johnny. As he walked outside he almost fainted.

The beach was gone.

Mike  was gone.

He was backstage at the freak show.

And the four-legged woman was sitting in the corner.

                                                 

 

Chapter Six

Johnny April had always been the type to show concert for other people’s pain. But right now he didn’t honestly care why the four-legged lady was crying. He wanted to be back in Mike’s sunny, warm kitchen with all that bacon and the promise of lamb and roasted potatoes.

He suddenly felt ashamed of his selfish thoughts. He was so unaccustomed to having them he didn’t know how to deal with it.

“Are you okay?” he finally asked. He chided himself. Of course she’s not okay, dumbass. She’s crying!

She stopped sniveling for a moment and gazed at him.  She hiccupped. “Where have you been? They told me a shark ate you!” She jumped from her chair and ran to him, her extra set of useless legs swinging between her functional ones.  She grabbed him and hugged him hard.

Johnny thought he could hear a bone creaking in his back.

“You’re okay.” She smelled strange. It was an unusual scent, but not unpleasant. Not really. It was just…odd. It wasn’t particularly alluring.

She pushed herself back from him, her little hands patting his chest and arms as though she wanted to make sure he really was there.

“Let me hear your heart.” She moved closer again and put her ear to his chest. “You’re alive.”

“Of course I’m alive.”

“Don’t get huffy with me, mister. I’m the one who begged the circus master to start a search party for you.”

“You did? Thank you.” What else could he say, especially when she kept touching him.

“Yes. It is indeed a pity he insisted we move on.”

Johnny thought the circus master sounded a lot like his father.

“Where are we now?” He tried to peer through the folds of the red velvet curtains, but it was too dark.

She gave him a peculiar look. “Boston. It’s a special night. The Bear Woman has joined the show!”

Bear Woman? It stirred some deep memory in Johnny, but before he could question her, she gripped his hand and pressed his pulse points. “Yep. Heartbeat is racing. You’re alive for sure. How did you survive the shark attack?”

“What shark?” he asked. “I don’t…” He broke off his sentence. He felt funny now. Not quite himself. Maybe it was all that food. He wasn’t used to such rich fare. He scratched his temple. He wondered if he would ever get to enjoy bacon again.

“That shark,” she said, reaching up and putting her hand to his shoulder. Unbelievably, her fingers reached through to some holes in the back of his T-shirt. She poked at an open wound in his shoulder. He hadn’t felt the pain until she started meddling with it.

“Ow!” He tried wrestling himself away from her, but she had a powerful grip. For a small woman, she certainly had superior strength.

“You mean you didn’t know?” She pointed back over his shoulder. “Look.”

He turned and realized there was a mirror behind him. To his utter astonishment, he stared at the image of his back. He’d been torn and bloodied. It was hard to see looking over his shoulder this way, but the four-legged woman ran and fetched him a mirror. He held it up and looked into it, getting a closer view of the shark bite. It looked as though the shark had grabbed him by the right half of his body.

“Is that a shark’s tooth?” he asked, feeling faint. As he touched the jagged white object sticking out of his shoulder, the pain became intense.

He dropped the mirror in fright when he realized there were more teeth embedded in his body. Johnny let out a scream. He seemed to scare Myrtle who suddenly ran from the room. Johnny freaked out completely when the blood oozed through his fingers when he touched the wound again.

 

Johnny heard the circus master’s booming voice: “Here she, ladies and gentlemen! The four-legged lady from Texas!” The crowd shouted their approval. Meanwhile back in the dressing room, some of the performers came running. Somebody tugged at the hem of his shorts. He glanced down and saw a tiny woman, well under three-feet tall staring up at him. She wore a long, black velvet gown with a ribbon of white lace at throat. Her hair was done in the cinnamon-buns-clamped-to-her-ears style so favored by Princess Leia.

Her mouth fell open and she blinked, uttering a harsh shriek just as he recalled who she was. They called her Mrs. Tom Thumb and he knew she’d been a popular circus ‘freak’. In fact, she and her husband, the original Tom Thumb had been famous for escaping the confines of circuses to attain respectability in polite circles.

They’d even had dinner with President Abraham Lincoln, he remembered.

Well, the woman once hailed for her charm and beauty was being obnoxious right now. She took off as fast as her voluminous skirts and little legs could carry her.

He closed his eyes, the world spinning in mad circles. He started to sway and then heard a sweet, soothing female voice coming from behind him.

“Let me look at him,” the lady said. “Dear one, I will help you.” She placed her hands on his shoulders, still standing behind him. The caring, tender way she treated him centered him immediately. “Don’t feel bad  about Lavinia. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She only regrets she isn’t tall enough to help you.”

He began to cry. The woman was so kind. Gentleness always rattled him because he wasn’t used to it and his need for nurturing was so great. He thought with great longing of Sharita and the way she had wanted to feed him. His mother had always been grateful that he starved himself of attention and food.

The woman said to somebody, bring me boiling water and bandages.” As though it were an afterthought she said, “And bring me one of Lewis’s white shirts.”

She began to hum and sing. He didn’t recognize the song but it sure stopped him from blubbering. He lowered his head, almost falling asleep. He blinked, his head coming back up involuntarily as she began removing the T-shirt with a pair of scissors. It fell in tatters at his feet.

“May I know your name?” she asked in the middle of a song.

“Johnny. Johnny April. May I know yours?”

Before she could respond, he let out a yelp. She’d pulled something out of his back. A tooth. He closed his eyes again, feeling sick. She began to hum, then said, “One more, Mr. April,” before extracting a second, seemingly bigger tooth from the middle of his back. She pressed hot water to his wounds and kept singing her sweet tune.

“And now some salve,” she said, daubing the wounds with some wonderful bittersweet-smelling stuff.

“What is that?” he asked, sniffing deeply. The aroma filled him with a deep sense of nostalgia, yet he had no idea how this was possible. He could detect bergamot on the air and something else.

“Black drawing salve,” the woman announced. She began to wrap the bandages around him. “My name is Julia.” She circled his body with a long piece of gauze and his heart almost stopped when he looked into her eyes.

He’d never seen an uglier woman. Her eyes were alive with warmth and genuine caring. Her face however, was covered in hair. Covered.

Her whole body was, come to think of it. She was so hairy and her features so thick, her mouth almost ape-like that it shocked him. But she wore a wonderful yellow dress and her tiny, dainty feet were encased in yellow dancing shoes. Her long hair had been dressed with yellow ribbons and white lace.

He knew who she was. She had always fascinated him.

She was Julia Pastrana. The famous hairy woman some likened to a baboon, and others he remembered now, to a bear. She had been manipulated and used first by her mother, and then by her husband Theodore Lent, also known as Lewis.

Johnny knew her story well. She had been poked and prodded by medical experts all over the world and proclaimed finally to be one hundred percent human but with an unfortunate hairy condition. She had wonderful attributes;  she could dance and sing. He remembered Lent had married her and impregnated her.

His gaze fell to her waist. My God, she is with child.

“Are you having a baby?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, her eyes melting with pleasure.

He wished he could warn her of what would happen. It was a fate not worthy of such a truly beautiful, lovely woman.

What could he say to warn her of the nightmarish future she faced? Could he say, “Your baby will die during childbirth due to asphyxiation and you will die two days later due to the complications of his delivery. Your husband will have you both mummified and you will travel the world in a glass case, still freaks on display.”

Could he say that?

Should he warn her that Lent would marry another woman with the same condition and force her to perform next to the remains of his dead wife and baby?

He took a deep breath and said, “You can’t have this baby.”

“Are you mad?” she asked, her whole face changing. She looked stricken, as though he had slapped her. She dropped the gauze and stared at the ground. Her head shook from left to right. “You don’t know,” she said. “You have no idea. I must have this baby. He is all I have. Don’t you see? He is the only person in the whole wide world who will understand me. I must have this child. I love him. I feel his breath in me. I swear I hear his heart beating.”

She looked devastated when she glanced back at Johnny. “Would you deny me the one thing, the only thing in this world that gives me grace? That allows me peace?”

As if on cue, a man walked in, gun cocked, shouting, “You! Put your hands up. Now!”

 

 

Chapter Seven

Johnny turned and stared at the man now cocking what looked like an old blunderbuss.

“Put your hands up,” the man said again, his tone icy and menacing. Johnny could feel Julia Pastrana’s fear. She held her breath, shaking a little. He glanced from what looked like a very expensive, ornate dress to her feet. She was short, well under five feet, but slim and buxom. His gaze moved up and down her body, going back to her feet again.They were so dainty and encased in yellow leather slippers with ribbon bindings, she seemed every inch a feminine women except for all that hair.

Johnny raised his hands and became aware of Julia’s agitated swaying beside him.

My God her shoes are too small. She’s in pain. And her dress is too tightShe can’t breathe!

Johnny worried more for the expectant woman than he did about his own plight. He suspected the man was Theodore “Lewis” Lent, the calculating manager who had married Julia and exploited her both during her short twenty-six years on earth and after it. Johnny had seen the photos of her and the baby boy she lost. After their deaths, he had them mummified and carried them around the world in a glass cabinet. She was his Twisted Cinderella. Except nothing would save her.

Or her baby.

No pumpkins or mice, or a fairy godmother. She would be on display for over a century. He’d just read about how an artist finally fought for the right to give Julia a proper burial.

The man with the gun said something but before Johnny could try to figure it out, Julia slipped to the ground. Johnny immediately knelt beside her. She felt hot. Damned hot and clammy. Her eyelids fluttered.

“I’ll get her water,” the man said in a gruff tone. It didn’t really sound like he cared if she was okay. “Get ‘er up,” he told Johnny.

Johnny obeyed and brought Julia to her feet. Her eyes opened and closed in a vague way.

“Where am I?” she asked. Ten seconds later, her head lolled from side to side. “Where is Lewis?”

She had lovely eyes. Intelligent, brave, sad eyes. He led her to a chair where she sat, breathing heavily, Johnny coaxing her to relax as her face jerked in pain.

“My baby!”

“He’s all right…” he assured her. “He’s safe.”

Her little fingers gripped his. “You know he’s a boy too, don’t you? Lewis thinks me crazy for believing so…”

Johnny thought this was interesting and sort of bizarre. He recalled that Lent wound up dying alone in a mental asylum. Perhaps preying on innocent women had finally pricked his conscience.

The man returned with a glass of water. The liquid didn’t look particularly clean but Julia reached for it, her hands shaking. Johnny held the glass to steady the water from sloshing and she gulped hard at the contents.

He felt so sorry for her. “May I have another, Lewis?”

He shook his head. “Dance first, then more water. You can’t drink too much.”

“But I am so parched,” she moaned.

Her husband lost his temper and snapped at her. “Stop complaining. Your music is about to start.” His face started to turn red, his eyes bulging in fury.

Johnny glared at Lent, who was a lot less attractive than the engravings he’d  seen of the man. In fact, he was damned ugly. He was tall, fat, had sparse hair on top of his which he appeared to be trying to atone for with a huge, mutton chop beard and eyes that looked like they wanted to run away from his face.

And people called Julia a monster…

 

Johnny stayed beside the still shaky Julia. Suddenly the baby inside her gave a kick. He could feel it against his arm.

 

“I think he’s ready to dance,” Johnny said.

Julia Pastrana’s whole expression changed. She laughed, revealing surprisingly even, white teeth. Though her lips were huge, her teeth were small. Mother nature had really played havoc with this poor woman.

“Have you trimmed your chin hair?” Lent screamed at his wife. “I hope not. People like it long. They expect to see a bear woman!”

“No, I did not.” Her voice grew small again and she shrank against Johnny.

He knew she was afraid of her husband, but also sensed her desperate love for him. She was as hopeless as his mother, trapped in a relationship she needed, or thought she needed, caught in a net that she hoped would protect her yet only ever betrayed her.

Some strange music began to play outside the ratty red velvet curtains.

“Showtime.” Lent wiggled his eyebrows.

Something inside Julia overtook the quivering, frightened mother-to-be. Music. It transformed her, her face suddenly shiny, and her eyes dreamy. It was sad and yet, he longed to see her in action. By all accounts, she’d had a beautiful voice and had been a truly gifted dancer.

He helped her to her feet.

“Stand by the stage,” she urged Johnny.

“No,” her husband countered.

“Please, Lewis,” she said. “I still feel unwell.”

Lent said nothing. He picked up the gun that Johnny hadn’t even realized he’d left on a nearby chair. He shoved it into the pocket of the long coat he wore and gave Johnny an unpleasant look that might have said, watch yourself.

He escorted the wobbly but excited Julia to the part in the curtains. She grabbed a long yellow veil from a small table in the room and threw it over her head. The effort almost toppled her. Johnny longed to fetch her another glass of water, but she seemed determined to go on.

The master of ceremonies out front shouted to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen! Step right up! We have a very special preview for you this evening!”
The crowd roared its appreciation and Julia seemed very excited now. She looked up at Johnny, her eyes alive with joy behind the veil.

“Do I look acceptable?”

“Acceptable? You are beautiful,” he said as the MC whipped the audience into a frenxy.

She looked stunned at Johnny’s words, then focused on the applause meant for her.

“Ladies and gentlemen! The famous ape woman, the unique bear women, or maybe you know her as the misnomer woman… Miss Julia Pastrana is here with a very special performance! Next week, she is leaving us and heading to Berlin and Leipzig to star in a play created especially for her, called Der curierte Meyer.

“In it, a young German man falls in love with a sweet-voiced woman who always wears a veil. Well, I won’t tell you more. I’ll let you see for yourselves! Here she is folks, the legendary Julia Pastrana!”

She rushed out, arms held high and Johnny ran to the wings at stage left to watch her perform. She truly had a presence. The crowd adored her and she, them. She waved and blew kisses and then the MC announced beside her, “To aid in her little preview here, we’ve asked one of our favorite circus freaks, the famous Shark Man to enact the love-struck German.”

The crowd went crazy.

Johnny’s mouth gaped as he saw a handsome man stagger onto the stage. He had a normal top half of his body, but his feet were deformed. They looked like flippers.

Not only that, when Johnny looked at him, the man was…

Mike.

* * * *

It took Johnny a couple of minutes to absorb the appearance of his new lover in the show. He could hear the crowd roaring with laughter but he didn’t think the show was very funny. When Mike left the stage a few time to allegedly milk his cows or chop wood to make soup, Julia would lift her veil to the endless amusement of the audience. She didn’t seem to mind their laughter. She even ad-libbed, “Of course the man I love is perfect.”

When the Shark Man came back on stage he looked bright red and very embarrassed. As soon as Julia lifted her veil and revealed herself, he screamed and hobbled off.

The crowd loved it. Julia took lots of curtain calls. Mike didn’t come back to the stage and as the MC asked for another round of applause for Julia, Johnny ran back to the dressing room hoping to find him.

He was there all right, sitting on a chair, staring down at his feet. The Shark Man didn’t show any sign of recognition when he looked up and caught Johnny’s gaze. He had the same defeated, lost look Johnny had seen on the faces of circus freaks across America.

“Hi,” he said.

“Do I know you?” the other man asked.

Johnny wondered whether the Shark Man was an earlier incarnation of Mike. Had he once been a circus freak in another life? Did Mike feel as though he was a circus freak now? So many questions and just no answers…yet.

Maybe he was supposed to see the Shark Man to understand Mike better.

“No, I don’t believe so,” Johnny said as he overheard the MC saying, “”And of course, the man doesn’t come back. Once he gets a load of what’s under the veil, he goes running for the hills!”

The crowd roared once more. The Shark Man winced. So did Johnny.

“What’s your affliction?” the Shark Man asked Johnny.

“I’m lost.”

“Aren’t we all?” He didn’t sound friendly and didn’t encourage more conversation, but Johnny made another stab it.

“My name is Johnny April.”

“I’m Butch Stevenson, better known as Shark Man. What I have is a family condition. And I don’t even like to swim.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. Johnny guessed their conversation was over.

Out front, Julia began to sing, beautiful, haunting,  romantic numbers in both Spanish and English. She finished her set dancing traditional Spanish muñeira as a man stood near her playing bagpipes. Johnny was intrigued to learn this particular dance was customary in old Spain. He’d never associated bagpipes with Latin cultures, but both the melody and Julia’s foot movements were unforgettable.

He began to wonder, as she took her curtain calls, what life would have been like without the cross God gave her to bear.

She came off stage sweaty, exhausted, but exhilarated.

“I need water,” she gasped. The kind Shark Man brought her some. Julia seemed very emotional when he approached her. “Oh, Butch,” she said, your poor ankles.”

“A am fine, Miss Pastrana, how are you?”

She nodded, “Fine, thank you,” as she gulped at the water. Johnny brought her a chair. He tried not to watch as the Shark Man began to crawl away on his hands and knees.

“It’s so much more comfortable for him,” Julia said. For long moments, she and Johnny sat in companionable silence.

“There are two things I wish for,” she said as the MC began stirring up the crowd for the next freak.

“What are they?” Johnny asked.

“That my son not be born with hair like mine, or his father’s disposition.” She looked fretful. “I dream of running away with him, of starting a new life. But I have terrible dreams sometimes. I am just like prisoner number 280.”

“280?”

Julia nodded again and finished her water. “That was Marie Antoinette’s prisoner number and we all know what happened to her.” She started to cry. “Sometimes I feel I am right there with her. I am not allowed to walk out in daylight. My husband doesn’t want people to see me. He is ashamed of me. Sometimes I truly think he wishes I were dead.”

“No. Surely not.” Johnny shook his head.

Julia dropped the glass and it smashed, her eyes widening in fear.

“Oh, Johnny, I am so afraid I am going to die.” Blood started pooling at her feet, shocking them both.

 

 

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