Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your unmagical host, Cheeseburger Brown.
I would've liked some of Leslie's powder myself this week, I can tell you. A thousand dollars in car repairs, over six hundred dollars of fines paid on behalf of a car thief, dozens of faxes, a visit to my non-local police department to tickle their bureaucratic machinery with my form-filling needs, a wife and two children with colds, four dead kittens still stored in garbage bags due to my missing the garbage truck on garbage day, plus the usual parade of silly challenges at the office -- and it's only Friday morning yet.
On Saturday the sky could fall. There's still time.
To be serious, I'm optimistic. Things can only improve from here, I believe. The actual likelihood of my being mangled in a road accident on the way home, for instance, is not significantly higher on this Friday than any other Friday.
In the end, things are okay at the Old Schoolhouse. We'll have a fire in the hearth tonight, and drink wine. Overdraft will cushion our bounces. The family Volvo is serviced and shod for winter transport safety, the cheeseburger Mini is street legal. I expect more paycheques. I think the baby's breathing sounded better today.
Life is good. Still, if I'd had my 'druthers I would've skipped the past six days.
Meanwhile, let's continue with our tale:
Leslie sent his son to bed and bent to unpacking the contents of the car into his garage. "Do you want some help?" asked the boy groggily, stretching.
"Nah," said Leslie. "You've got school tomorrow. Go on to bed. Thanks, though."
Angus waved vaguely and shuffled into the house.
Leslie surprised himself by failing to break the grandfather clock as he hefted it down over the hood and eased it upright by the front bumper. He ran his hand over the ornate curlicues carved into the mahogany -- mahogany that had before last night been pitted and scraped, nicked and sun-bleached. Now the clock looked as pristine as it must have on the day it was built.
It struck twelve bells magnificently. Leslie grinned.
"Lord Jesus," said Margaret, standing in the doorway. "What's all this, then?"
"It's a grandfather clock," said Leslie.
"I'm not blind."
"It's quite lovely, don't you think?"
"It's junk. With a house this small do you imagine I'd welcome more crap to stuff in? Honest, Les, honest to Jesus you're a mess of a man." Margaret wrinkled her nose. "Is that it, then? That's our grand inheritance?"
"Um, there's more."
Leslie watched mutely as his wife -- whom had once been tall and willowy but was now fused by aerobic tension into a hard streamline -- strode across the garage and haughtily retied her robe before swinging up the Taurus' tailgate and casting a critical eye on the contents. She shook her head and turned to him, frowning. "Well, garbage day is Wednesday. See that it all gets out."
"It's not all garbage," he protested. "If we wanted to I bet we could get quite a price for the clock."
"I won't hold my breath," she muttered, poking back into the car. "What else did you drag home? A musty painting of some trollop?"
"That's Aunt Diana."
"She's not your real aunt."
"Garbage." She reached in and sighed with exasperation as she pulled out a sheaf of family albums. She flipped through one quickly. "Photos of the dead. Great. Where were you planning on keeping these?"
"In the laundry room?"
She dumped the box of albums on the garage floor. "There's no space. And what's this? A bird cage? Jesus Les, we don't have a bird -- and we're not getting one, either. You'd better disabuse yourself of the notion of our putting up any pets in this house, and fast."
Margaret hauled out the cage and tossed it carelessly into the corner. "Hey!" yelled Leslie indignantly. "Careful with that, you idiot!"
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't you start calling me names, Leslie Carstairs. Have you been drinking again? Let me smell your breath."
Leslie pushed past his wife roughly and knelt down next to the cage, righting it gingerly and tugging the velvet drape back into place. "You could have broken this," he said quietly.
"Watch me lose sleep over a broken piece of trash," she snapped. "I shouldn't have let you go. I should've gone myself, obviously. You're hopeless, Les."
Leslie straightened, his face colouring. "Just cut that crap out!" he shouted, startled by the intensity of his anger. He fought to keep his clenched fists at his sides. "I'm not your goddamn child, Margaret. I'm a grown man. It wasn't up to you to decide, and it still isn't. We live in this house together and if I want to find a place for this clock, I fucking well will do so."
"Such language, Les! The last refuge of a poor argument."
"You want to see a last refuge?" he challenged, leaning in close to her face. "Bugger off. Do you hear me? There's your marching orders. Leave me the hell alone, shrew."
She hardened her pose, looking down as she retied her robe tighter again. "Barking orders at me will only get you the opposite, I'm afraid."
Leslie chuckled darkly. "So you're going to stand in the middle of the garage all night just because I told you to leave? That's pretty unbelievably bloody childish, Margaret."
"No," she simpered with simulated sweetness, "calling me names and swearing to defend your pile of trash is childish, Les."
Leslie regarded her fixedly for a long moment, neither of them moving. Then he broke the contest and rummaged in the back of the Taurus until he found one of the bottles of Old Mull he'd elected to take away. "Well, I'll drink to that. To childhood regained!" He unscrewed the cap and took a messy swig, scotch dripping from his chin.
"You're a pig," said Margaret.
Possessed of a sudden inspiration, Leslie fished out the sugar jar, surged forward as he unlatched it, and then upended it over her head. Margaret stumbled backward, coughing and confused.
Leslie stood his ground, hands on his hips, licking the taste of scotch off his lips.
Margaret brushed the sparkling dust out of her black hair, frowning at it as it glistened on her palms. She opened her mouth to speak but then closed it again, a thoughtful veil pulled over her eyes. She sat down on the cement floor, her brow furrowing.
"Feeling any better?" challenged Leslie.
She looked up at him, her face as open as a child's, her grey irises shining in a way he'd forgotten. "Leslie Donovan Carstairs..." she said slowly, carefully.
"...I'm leaving you."
Leslie was startled. "What?"
Margaret got to her feet again, a little smile blooming on her thin lips. "I'm leaving you, Les. I really am. God, I've been thinking about it and thinking about it for so many years -- and now I'm really going to do it. I don't know why I didn't do it earlier. It's so clear to me now. I'm leaving you. I'm leaving you tonight."
Leslie blinked, paralyzed. "What?" he said again.
His wife nodded to herself, rubbing her chin. "I'll go to my sister's. I'll pick up Angus after school tomorrow. Have him pack a bag. Lord Jesus, this always seemed like such an ordeal to me before, but now I realize all I needed was a plan."
"Plan?" Leslie stammered.
She looked him in the eye steadily, her expression thoughtful. "There's a parent-teacher conference with Angus' home-form teacher tomorrow at eight o'clock. You can take care of that for us. Room four-eleven. Don't be late. They already think we're rotten parents as it is."
Leslie said nothing. He just stared.
"I'm sorry, Les, I really am. I've had nothing but piss and vinegar for you for so long after so many years of taking your crap. That's over now. Let's be adults about this. Promise me you'll make it to the conference. It's important. It's for Angus."
"I...promise..." said Leslie, his mouth dry.
She smiled wanly, reached out and touched his cheek with tenderness. "You used to be a good man," she told him, then turned on heel and left the garage.
Leslie sat down heavily on the rear bumper and drank generously from the bottle of Old Mull. He patted down his pockets until he found the cigarettes and lit one up. Finally, he slipped his great-grandfather's folio out and unfolded the pages, rifling through them to find something to make some sense of what had just happened.
The extract is not capable of granting wishes or realizing fantasies. It must be understood that the effect is to improve the target however such improvements may not necessarily be aligned with one's desires. For example were one to affect a thief with the extract he would be more likely to confess his crimes to the proper authorities than to become more adept in his immoral craft."So how is it morally better for my wife to leave me?" he asked aloud, frustrated. He took a hard haul off the cigarette and chased it with scotch. "Damn," he added absently.
This principle is the basis of the prime & paramount interdiction with regard to the extract: that self-administration is forbidden. Should one err in this respect the repercussion is a sentence of death for one would find oneself compelled to immediately undo the greatest injustice one in such a condition must inevitably carry which is aught else but the imprisonment of the creature itself."Damn damn," breathed Leslie, looking up. "If I take the powder myself I let the thing go and it kills me. Terrific."
He thought about closing the garage door and running the engine and going to sleep forever. He drank instead. He heard the screen door slam; Margaret left in yellow taxicab. The only thing that kept him pegged to Earth was the knowledge that Angus was asleep inside the house. The only thing that gave him hope was the damned powder.
Recklessly, tipsily, he found himself unwilling to face another bad news parent-teacher conference without arming himself with the extract. It would cut his way! He lurched off the bumper and set to preparing the dosage of ether, snapping on his rubber gloves.
He peeked under the velvet. The tiny woman watched him with black eyes, quivering slightly, hugging her own thin shoulders. "I'm sorry about this," mumbled Leslie. Then he gassed her. He heard her body drop into the bed of shredded newspaper.
He tried not to watch while she flopped around like a doll in the tongs, but he had to or he lost too much powder outside the paper cone. A number of grains landed on his rubber glove, which became increasingly comfortable and faintly strawberry scented.
A moment later he was peeling off his gas masque and transferring the contents of the paper cone into the sugar jar, latching it firmly. The jar had become both lighter and stronger than it used to be, and it now gleamed as if constantly polished. By constant exposure to the extract it had become a more worthy vessel.
Leslie cackled to himself, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "I have a feeling things at Angus' school are about to get...better," he told the grandfather clock.
It struck one.
The tiny woman in the cage stirred. She blinked and lifted her head, the shredded newspaper crackling. One wing twitched. Leslie raised the bottle of Old Mull in salute and polished off its contents.
"Here's to you, little lady," he grunted. "Here's to a better life."
He staggered off to bed.