Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your bleeding heart host, Cheeseburger Brown.
So apparently it wasn't enough that we feed the feral cat that's been living on our stoop since summer: now we've moved on to playing veterinary dulas as she prints kittens out her nethers in the downstairs bathroom's claw-footed tub.
My wife's plan to arrange a hysterectomy for the cat came too late.
The litter is very cute, but the mother is too young. She's neglecting them. Our veterinary think tank sadly admits this is not rare with first heat pregnancies.
Some kittens have already been lost. Our daughter is dismayed but not broken up.
My wife is even now out on a mercy mission to our local pet supplies borg-cube superstore to secure the materiel required to nurse kittens by hand, to rescue what can be rescued of the litter.
I'll let you know how the whole thing works out. So far I can assure of you of this: the bathroom smells awful.
And now, we continue our tale:
Leslie's uncle's house was a palace; a palace left to wilt, the furniture mourning under sheets, the curtains moth-eaten. The dust denied any ability to stop sneezing.
He uncovered a giant, sun-faded oil-painting of his uncle's long dead second wife and regarded dolefully the handsome, unsmiling girl trapped inside. He sneezed four times in rapid succession and rubbed his eyes. "Thanks Unc, I know just where I'll hang it," he muttered, thinking of his basement.
With a grunt he dragged the portrait into the hall and leaned it up against the rest of the inherited kipple in a pile meant for Angus to load into the Taurus. Despite bellowing at the teenager to get out of bed half an hour earlier the pile had not yet been touched. Leslie sighed and leaned on the banister. "Angus!" he called. "It's nearly noon for Christ's sake -- get down here already!"
Angus stuck his head out of a bedroom. "What?" he mumbled blearily, pushing strands of long, lank hair out of his face.
"You have to start taking this stuff out to the car. You said you'd be up at ten."
Angus blinked. "What time is it?"
The boy scoffed. "It's only like eleven forty-five."
"Doesn't really change anything, does it?"
"Whatever," grumbled Angus. "I have to take a shower."
Leslie ran his hand down his face wearily. "Let's just skip the shower and get on with this, okay? There's no girls here. Nobody cares if you smell."
"I don't smell," snapped Angus defensively.
"All the more reason to hop to it."
Leslie went back to the mouldering drawing room and consulted again the manifest of decaying possessions of which he was entitled to take custody: an antique grandfather clock in need of repair, a slightly cracked set of intricately hand-brushed fine bone china, a series of tarnished military medals awarded for killing Korean communists, presumably in the context of a war.
At the bottom of the list was a rather cryptic item specifying only the contents of Uncle Weldon's private study in toto. "I hope it's nothing too big," he sighed. "Or too worthless," he added.
After trudging up to the third floor he discovered the study and found the door locked. He slipped out the envelope given to him by the executor, his officious cousin Leon, and fished out the key that had been included without explanation. He fitted it into the heavy oak door and turned the lock free.
The door swung open with a long creak, releasing a bloom of dust. Leslie sneezed again, six times, leaving him winded and his forehead covered in a thin sheen of perspiration.
The little room was empty.
"Nice," said Leslie darkly.
He wandered inside, the floorboards whining petulantly under his feet. He turned around a saw that there was a closet, and affixed to the narrow, scuffed door was a manilla envelope that bore his name in an old man's looping and elaborate but shaky hand: Attention Leslie Carstairs: Private & Confidential.
Leslie plucked it free, blew open the end, and leaned against the wall by the small, vine-choked window to read. The first item to drop out was a short letter on his uncle's personal letterhead. It was dated just a couple of weeks before Weldon had passed away. Leslie squinted.
Dearest nephew,Leslie blinked, then sneezed. He wiped his snot off the letter carefully and then refolded it and exchanged it for an age-yellowed envelope bearing postmarks from Auld Scotland. Inside was a thick folio of papers bound with a leather string. The pages were encrusted with line after line of tight, old-fashioned cursive in brown ink.
I have never had much truck with words. Thus, I direct you to my grandfather's own notes as they were delivered to me so many years ago. Read carefully, and be sure to heed his advice in all matters relating to this gift. Welcome to a better life.
Leslie looked across the room to the closet and furrowed his brow.
With the unread folio still clutched in his hand he shuffled across the floor and twisted the dented brass knob. The closet yawned open. His eyes strained against the gloom.
Inside the closet was a bird cage covered in a swath of linty black velvet.
He reached out to pull away the drape but hesitated when something inside the cage shifted audibly. Leslie frowned. He backed out of the closet and untied the leather string around his great-grandfather's folio, holding the faded pages close to his face. He settled on a random passage and read:
The creature requires very little in the way of sustenance but will offer lower yields if not supplied with fresh water. Each fortnight the creature will consume 4 to 6 grams of insect matter with a distinct preference for beetles & a matching reluctance for flies. NB: for maximum efficacy the feed should be live when introduced to the cage.Leslie decided that whatever exotic bird or lizard he had been bequeathed had probably already died from lack of attention, and that the sound he heard had likely come from a leftover insect. He shuddered, wondering what kind of rotting mess lay in wait beneath the velvet.
He strolled into the closet, tugged off the drape, then leapt back and preemptively covered his nose from whatever odious smell might be released.
Inside the dark closet, the cage rattled. Leslie bit his lip. He looked down at the folio pages again.
As the creature is nocturnal by habit it is best to harvest during daylight hours to take advantage of a certain natural lethargy. This lethargy is not alone sufficient to ensure safety however it does substantially mitigate the dosage of ether necessary to perform the act.Leslie sniffed experimentally. Indeed, at the edge of perception he could discern a faded funk of ether gas. Resting on a shelf in the closet was a series of flasks and tubing beside a box of disposable rubber gloves and a pair of metal tongs. He frowned. "What the hell is this?" he wondered aloud, flipping over a page to find the reverse face covered in even more notations.
The cage rattled again. Leslie looked up.
Almost without volition he stepped gingerly forward and reached out for the hanging corner of the black velvet drape, then decisively whisked it off. The cage sang briefly like a harpsichord. He leaned in close, probing the shadows with wide eyes.
Inside the cage was a tiny woman.
She was about four inches tall, naked and pale. She crouched on a bed of shredded newspaper, looking back at Leslie with eyes as black, shiny and inscrutable as a bird's. Except for a tangled bramble of matted red locks on her head she was hairless, her breasts and hips subtle like a girl just barely beginning to bloom. From her back rose four wings like those of a butterfly, translucent and run through with fine veins.
"Jesus Santa," whispered Leslie, the folio dropping out of his hand and scattering on the floor. His knees felt weak so he sat down, back to the closet. "Christ, Christ, Christ," he said.
He looked back over his shoulder: the tiny woman was still there, her pinched little face pointed at him, watching silently. She blinked.
Leslie had never left a room so fast. He staggered down the staircase to the second floor, grabbed his coat from the bedroom and frisked it until he found the red box of DuMaurier Lights, his breathing quick and ragged. He jammed one into his mouth and lit it, pacing around the musty bed he'd slept so badly in.
"Holy God, Holy God," he mumbled, smoking.
He wandered aimlessly downstairs and pushed into the diningroom, eyeing the liquor cabinet. It was black, oriental, painted with scenes. He unlatched it and opened it up, peering at the rows of dusty bottles. He was about to select an Old Mull when he heard a noise from the kitchen. "...Angus?" he called.
"What?" snapped his son.
Leslie walked into the kitchen. Angus was sitting with his feet up on the table, unwrapping a sandwich from the cooler and examining the filling critically. "What are you doing?" asked Leslie.
"Having breakfast, obviously."
"It's lunch time."
"So I'm eating lunch. Who cares?"
"I care since I'm waiting on you to load the car, like you promised."
"I didn't promise, I just said I'd do it."
"So why aren't you doing it?"
"I'm hungry. I'll do it in like five minutes."
Leslie was quiet for a moment. He watched the boy bite into the sandwich. Then he surged forward and slapped his feet off the table. Angus dropped the sandwich and swore, glaring at his father. "What the hell?" he shouted.
"Now, Angus. Get your ass off that chair and load up the car. Now. Do you hear me? Now."
Angus sneered. "You know, people would be more willing to do favours for you if --"
"Just cut that shit out!" bellowed Leslie, striking the table top with a clenched fist. "You're always talking about people when what you really mean is you. Why can't you even take responsibility for yourself in your own statements? Is it some kind of goddamn brain damage?"
Angus was stunned. "You cracked the table, Da --"
"Shut up!" cried Leslie. "Sixteen years old and you still don't know when to keep your fucking mouth shut. It's amazing to me. I have no explanation. Maybe your teachers are right after all: maybe you're just not very bright."
They stared at each other. Angus' face twitched. For a second he looked like he was going to cry before he suddenly kicked over his chair and stomped out of the kitchen.
Leslie leaned against the counter and closed his eyes, hating himself.
After a moment he lit another cigarette, his hands shaking. He heard scuffling sounds as Angus started dragging the first items out to the Taurus.
They didn't speak to each other for the rest of the day. Leslie kept busy, and kept away from the third storey. He ordered a pizza at twilight. Angus loaded half of the slices onto two paper plates and walked away, then returned a few minutes later and took away a can of pop. Even sitting on the far side of the kitchen Leslie could hear the music thrumming through the boy's earphones, excluding everything.
Leslie didn't eat much pizza. But he did taste the Old Mull.
He was wagging a second bottle of the fine scotch in his hand as he shuffled into his uncle's third storey study an hour later. He snapped on the overhead light -- a dim, amber lozenge hanging from a chain -- and kept his back to the closet as he knelt down to collect the fallen folio pages.
Sparing use of the extract is recommended for a host of reasons including but not limited to: risk of exposure to & igniting the jealousy of greater authorities; risk of exposure to & exploitation by nefarious players; risk of exposure to & vengeance from the kingdom of the creature's origin; risk of losing sight of Christian propriety & becoming depraved with avarice & ill passions.Leslie looked up at the small, dark window. In the reflection he could discern the open closet behind him as a warped rectangle framing his head. "Extract?"
He took a swig of scotch and turned the pages over, looking for something resembling an introduction or overview. Instead what he found were step by step instructions for gassing the creature with ether, grasping it with tongs, and shaking off a sprinkling of powder into a paper cone. The instructions mandated the use of rubber gloves and the donning of a gas masque. Everything was specified in neat tables: seconds, ounces, inches.
Leslie sneezed, and then drank. And then he did it.
He sweated as he did it. He worked hard to keep his hands steady and obedient as he rapped the tongs against the mouth of the cage's opening, the limp little body clasped between its tines quivering. Each oscillation left in its wake a few specks of twinkling, fine sand that danced like snowflakes as they swirled into the paper cone held beneath...
He didn't want to be around when it woke up again so he folded the paper cone according to his great-grandfather's diagram, stuffed everything into the manilla envelope and then locked the study door behind him.
It is essential to understand that the principle upon which the extract functions is a moral fulcrum with as its engine an algorithm to optimise the state of justice in a target object with the degree of resulting change measured in strict proportion to the quantity of application. In short: it makes things better."Better, eh?" said Leslie, swinging by the liquor cabinet to pick up another pick me up.
He lit a cigarette and wandered out the front door, kicking pebbles in the circular driveway. He sauntered over to the Taurus and examined the half-assed, slap-dash job Angus had done loading it up. The slightly broken china set now appeared to be more generously damaged. The grandfather clock had been strapped, uncovered, to the luggage rack with only a single bungee cord. "Jesus, Angus," muttered Leslie aloud.
With tipsy enthusiasm Leslie hopped on the rear bumper and hoisted himself up to the clock's level, reflected stars glinting in the cracked glass of its face. Suddenly, he had an idea.
He took out the paper cone, unfolded it, and tapped a few grains of the powder upon the grandfather clock.
The cigarette ran down to the filter and threatened to burn his fingers so Leslie hopped down off the Taurus' rear bumper and tossed it into the gravel. He shoved the paper cone into his pocket, took a haul of scotch, then tried to hop back up. Instead he barked his shin on the tow-hitch and spent a moment swearing with sacrilegious vigour.
When he quieted he was surprised to hear the crickets ticking.
He frowned. Crickets don't tick.
The grandfather clock struck eleven bells. The magnificent peals cut the night, reverberating dully against the car's metal roof and sending a chill slithering along Leslie's back. Birds swept out of the nearest trees.
"Holy God," whispered Leslie. "It's better."
He went inside and ate a slice of cold pizza while staring at the wall, his sluggish, drunken mind feeling to him as if it were racing. He tried to read more pages of the folio but could not focus on the miniscule words. He turned instead to the problem of placing the contents of the folded paper cone in a housing more in line with the awe it now inspired.
Despite Leon's pointed prohibition against taking possession of non-specified items, Leslie decided the estate could spare a latched jar. There were a row them on the counter labelled in faded stencil: flour, salt, labeled, sugar. Leslie chose sugar. It wasn't exactly the Ark of the Covenant but it was more dignified than folded paper.
He snapped the latch closed on the sugar jar, then pushed it across the kitchen table and stared it down.
"I can make things better," he burbled reverently, head lolling.
Leslie fell asleep, half spilled out of his chair, half splayed across the kitchen table. He dreamed of genies and lamps, miracles and Tinkerbell, blowjobs and Big Rock Candy Mountain.