Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your Serlingesque host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Looking at this serial as a completed story it looks to me a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. Considering this, I wonder whether it might better have been told in black and white. If you like, feel free to whistle the theme from the show as you finish reading today's episode.
For the total immersion effect you can pretend to be skimming production credits. You might ask yourself, "Who knew it took so many people to build a story. I wonder what a serif grip does, for instance. And did they really need two assistant adjective wranglers -- with that budget?"
The upshot of writing these kinds of stories in the twenty-first century, of course, is that the special effects are better. Please note how seamlessly the words typed on bluescreen integrate with the phrases around them -- it's like they're really there.
And now, we conclude our tale:
Leslie wanted to go faster, but the car was reluctant.
He had a plan, but time was his enemy. The plan was worth fighting for. The whole city would be better for it, and Leslie would be free.
When he finally arrived at work Mr. Feldman was waiting in his office, his ample frame propped up against the desk. Leslie dumped the bags from Canadian Tire and Home Depot on his chair with a grunt. "Mr. Feldman, I'm so sorry I'm late. I just had to run a few errands, and --"
Mr. Feldman waved it off. "Don't trouble yourself, Carstairs. I've never been a clock Nazi. I only wanted to make sure you're alright -- I know your son dropped by yesterday, and your wife's been calling all morning."
Leslie blinked. "She has?"
"Is everything alright at home?"
Leslie sighed and drew a hand down his face. "To tell the whole truth, sir, the family's been going through a bit of a rough patch lately, but I think we're going to be okay. I appreciate your concern, though."
Mr. Feldman smiled dolefully, his brown eyes heavy. "Things have been a little messy at home for me as well. I understand how it can be. Will you need some time?"
"Actually, I will have to pop out for a spell today."
"Fine, fine. Do whatever it takes, Carstairs. Nothing's more important than family." He eased himself up from the desk, shoved his hands in his pockets and wandered toward the door. "I was worried about you. Your wife sounded like she was under some strain. What's her name again? Colleen? Kristin?"
"Karen! That's it, isn't it? She asked to speak to me personally. She wanted to be sure you'd be in today."
"Karen..." echoed Leslie dumbly.
"You look tired. Are you sure you're alright?"
"Quite sure, sir. Thank you. Thanks for handling that. Thanks for everything. It's been a tough time but we're all fine now, really." Leslie tried to smile.
Mr. Feldman lingered at the jamb. "The details are none of my business but let me just say this, Carstairs: don't let a good woman slip away. You don't know what you've got until it's gone."
"I won't, sir. Believe you me. I know what I've got and it's damn important to me."
Leslie sat down heavily and turned on his computer. Error messages popped up all over the desktop warning him that his mailbox was full. He clicked open the window and surveyed the list of almost two hundred messages from Karen Groverston: Where are you??? was the first subject and Bastard!!! was the last.
His desk telephone rang. The display said the call was from Angus' school.
"Oh shit, oh shit," moaned Leslie, head in his hands.
He dumped the call to voicemail, grabbed his bags and ran straight back down to the garage. Ten minutes later he jerked the Taurus to a halt outside Chad's building and rushed into the lobby to stab at the intercom. He hurried into the apartment and dumped the bags. "Here's everything," he said breathlessly. "Are we still good to have this together today?"
"I'll have it together before noon," said Chad, squinching out a joint on the glass coffeetable. "I have to, pretty much, because I have to be at the airport at like three this afternoon to catch my flight."
"You're off to the Congo?"
"They're sending me to Cameroon, actually. I'm not going to get into any trouble over this, am I?"
"Do you know anyone who might want to sublet this apartment from me?"
"Sorry, no. Listen, I have to run. You call if you need anything, okay?"
Leslie sped. He was pulled over on Gottingen Street. The cop was nice. He bumped the ticket down so it wouldn't cost him too many points. Leslie thanked him and strained every fibre of his being to moderate his speed until the cruiser was out of sight, then he laid on the gas and pushed the rattling old car to the limit until he was screeching to halt in front of his house, a cloud of burnt rubber stench washing over the car, carried by inertia.
Once inside the garage he panted to catch his breath as he knelt down to flip the velvet drape off of the bird cage. He cast a critical eye on his captive. The tiny woman looked up at him feebly, lying on her side in the bed of shredded newspaper. It had been a long, rough night and the tongs had left purpling bruises on her pale flesh. She quailed at his face.
"I'm sorry about this, I really am," breathed Leslie as he reached for the ether canister. "But I promise you: this is the last time."
He didn't get very much this time -- not after last night's massive harvest, now secured in a neat row of metal thermos bottles lined on the garage shelf next to a can of paint, a broken fan and a box of sandpaper. Beside the shelf he had pinned a map of Halifax with each of the city's drinking water reservoirs marked by a red push-pin.
He set to his business.
When he was done Leslie released the tiny woman from the end of the tongs and watched her body sink slackly into the newspaper. He pulled off the gas masque and gloves after dumping his scant collection of fresh extract into the final thermos, screwing the cap on firmly.
He sat back on his haunches and wiped his brow. "Okay, okay, okay."
An instant later he jumped to his feet and loaded up the car: thermos bottles, map, gloves, covered cage. He checked his watch.
He went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. The telephone rang. He heard the answering machine click into gear, projecting his own warbly voice muttering about beeps and messages. Then Karen's voice sounded out through the speaker: "I know what's going on here, Leslie. You can't jerk me around. I'm not an idiot and I'm not going to take it. I'm not your toy, you bastard."
On his way back to Chad's apartment he was pulled over by the same cop, who was this time less inclined to be lenient. Leslie was slapped with a massive fine and docked several points from his license. "Whatever your rush is today, sir," lectured the cop, "it isn't worth dying over."
"No sir," agreed Leslie.
The elevator up to Chad's unit was painfully, tortuously slow. Leslie glanced at his watch and swore. He was supposed to be picking up Margaret and Angus from Molly's house in less than six hours. The elevator chimed and the doors eased apart glacially.
Chad was in the midst of orchestrating a frenzied mission of packing assisted by a couple of friends with oily hair and T-shirts with computer slogans on them. "Chad -- please tell me you have good news," begged Leslie.
"No problem, Mr. Carstairs," replied Chad. "Here, let me show you how it works. Have you got the cage?"
"There's no time. Just show me on the test cage. I'll figure it out."
A short nerd hovered at Leslie's elbow. "Dude, can I borrow your PlayStation while you're gone?"
"Yeah, sure," said Chad. "Whatever."
Back down in the visitors' parking lot Leslie yanked open the tailgate of the Taurus and placed Chad's remote opening device inside, beside the cage. As he did so his mobile rang five times in a row. He slammed the tailgate and fished the telephone out of his pocket. He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. "...Yes?"
"What the hell is going on with you?"
"I can't explain right now, Karen, but I'm caught up something really complicated and really urgent. I'm sorry I can't say more right now but time is of the essence."
"I've been trying to reach you for two days."
"I know, I know. I'm very sorry. You're just going to have to believe me when I say I'll explain everything just as soon as --"
"Bullshit. Explain now. I'm not waiting on you, Leslie. I'm not some whore you can put aside when playtime is over."
"It's not like that!" he shouted.
"So what is it like, Leslie? Are you going to talk to me now or am I going to have to go down to Mic Mac Mall and ask Margaret?"
"You shut your mouth," warned Leslie, his own mouth going instantly dry.
"You can't run, Leslie. I have Angus' student records -- contact numbers, work addresses, everything. I know where you live, you bastard."
Leslie almost gagged. He took another deep breath. "Where are you? Let's meet. Right now. Let's talk this out." He checked his watch, frowning.
"I'm at school."
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
As he drove he tried to reapportion his afternoon: fifteen minutes to the school, fifteen minutes to talk to Karen, twenty-five minutes out to Point Pleasant Park to drop off the cage and set up Chad's device, twenty-five minutes to get far enough away to trigger it, then on to the first reservoir...
Thirteen minutes later he squealed into the school lot. He jumped out of the car and slammed the door, then popped the tailgate and hoisted a thermos bottle. So what if one reservoir got a little less extract? The city would still be better. Besides, Leslie had more immediate concerns.
The corridors were clogged with students changing classes, babbling, laughing, shoving. A squadron of boys ran into him bodily, causing him to drop the thermos. Leslie bellowed "Fuck!" and scampered after it, dashing to his hands and knees to protect it with his body as kids pressed in from all sides.
He got it. He sprinted through the stragglers to Karen's classroom, bursting through the door.
She looked up from her desk. "Where is everybody?" asked Leslie stupidly.
"I have a spare," said Karen, eyes hard.
"You have to understand something --"
"No," she interrupted, standing up. "You have to understand something, Leslie. I don't allow people to treat me this way."
"I didn't mean to --"
"What?" she demanded, pushing a blonde lock out of her flushed face. "Didn't mean to leave me hanging after changing my life? Dodge my calls after everything you whispered in my ear? Play bullshit games while you dick me around and dick your wife around so you can have it both ways like some kind of playboy?"
"No, no, that isn't it at all --"
She screamed, "Don't you lie to me, you bastard!"
Leslie leaned against the door, closing his eyes. "Karen," he said after a moment, "you're right. I want to be perfectly honest with you."
She stared at him, lips pursed.
Leslie went on, "Margaret and I have reconciled. I have to end this. I'm sorry."
He opened his eyes again. Karen's shoulders were quaking with quiet sobs. She hugged her shoulders tightly, and then her knees buckled and she sat down hard on the floor.
Leslie took a tentative step forward, reaching out. "Karen..."
She looked up, her features puffy and her eyes red-rimmed. Her lips trembled as she began to shake her head slowly back and forth. "No..." she said. "No, you can't do this to me. Not like this. You can't make me feel this worthless and just take off like nothing ever happened."
Leslie moved closer. "Karen --"
"You can't!" she shouted, fists clenched. "I won't let you. I won't let you off the hook. I'm going to call your wife and we're going to have a nice, long conservation about everything."
"Shut up, Leslie, and get out. Get out of here now."
"Karen, you have to --"
"There's nothing you can say. There's nothing you can do. Just fuck off, Leslie. Get out of my sight." She picked herself up and wiped her nose. "You had your chance."
She walked over to her desk and picked up the flesh-coloured telephone. Leslie begged, "This is stupid, Karen. Just stop. We can talk about this like adults. Just stop."
"No," she said. She selected a line, and then flipped open her daytimer and traced her finger down the page to a scrawled number.
"Stop!" howled Leslie, his ears throbbing with heartbeat.
"No," she said again. And then into the receiver: "Is Margaret Carstairs available?"
Leslie's blood boiled, adrenaline igniting his muscles. The stress was too much. He couldn't take it. He had a mission to accomplish. He could broker no delay that would keep him even an hour further from making everything right.
He could not let Karen spoil it. Not after everything he'd been through.
Leslie crossed the classroom in three quick strides and smacked the receiver out of her hand, so she picked up the body of the telephone and hit him across the jaw with it. He stumbled back, seeing stars. He withdrew the thermos bottle from his jacket and wrenched off the cap.
Karen's eyes widened. "You are drugging me!" she cried. "Oh my God, you are! Oh my God, I knew it! I knew it!"
"I can make everything better," whispered Leslie, a line of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. "Trust me, Karen. I can fix everything. Just let me --"
Karen rushed at him. She pried the thermos bottle out of his hand, loosening his grip by kneeing him in the testicles savagely. Leslie dropped to his knees, straining for breath, his bloody mouth fixed in a circle of shock. He tried to plead but he had no voice.
Karen upended the contents of the thermos over Leslie's head.
They were frozen in that attitude for a long moment, Leslie cowering, Karen standing over him with the empty thermos. It dropped from her hand and clanged to the floor, rolling under her desk. She shuffled backward until she hit the desk, too, grabbing its edge for support. "Leslie?" she whispered.
He looked up. He was weeping.
"Leslie?" she said again.
He slowly climbed to his feet, grunting at the ache between his legs and the waves of pain coursing through his jaw. Tears rolled down his cheeks, slid down his neck, darkened the collar of his shirt. He turned around and reached for the doorknob.
"Leslie, speak to me!"
He looked back over his shoulder sadly. "I...have to go to the car now," he said, his voice now soft and almost dreamy. He opened the door.
"Leslie, stop! What is it?"
He looked at her again as he stepped outside into the corridor. "I have to," he repeated dully.
The door closed.