Wednesday 8 November 2006

Leslie and the Powder, Part Three

Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your exploited host, Cheeseburger Brown.

The kittens were a wash. My daughter is philosophical about it.

What I'm not so philosophical about is the fact that the Ministry of Transportation informed me yesterday that they'd like me to pay the hundreds of dollars of parking fines amassed over the past few years by the guy who stole my car.

The blonde, middle-aged woman standing behind me in line happened to work in the insurance industry; she spoke up right away to say it was the responsibility of my insurance company to sever my license from the stolen vehicle (which had certainly been my understanding). "Well, let's sever it now!" I told the pimply girl behind the counter.

"I'm sorry sir but I can't do that without a signed affadavit from the constable who dealt with the case in 2003."

A football-player sized black man wearing a poppy was standing in line behind the insurance lady. "That's outrageous!" he said.

"I don't even live in that city anymore," I told the girl. She shrugged helplessly.

So I was obliged to pay $620 or have my license suspended on the spot. Meanwhile, whoever stole my car is still using the plates, racking up fines for yours truly. Charming, no?

Have no doubt: my insurance company will be hearing from my lawyer.

And now, we continue our tale:


Leslie awoke with a start.

The kitchen was sunny. The light made his eyes burn. He knuckled his sockets groggily and tried to move, discovering simultaneously several zones where his body was voicing rabid protests over his sleeping position. He groaned, aching.

Across the cracked kitchen table was the latched sugar jar.

As Leslie's brain sluggishly booted up memories of the previous evening's activities dribbled back into his consciousness and found their proper order: Old Mull, the grandfather clock, ether and extract, the tiny woman in the bird cage.

"Jesus Christ," murmured Leslie, his mouth dry and pasty.

He stood up and then paused a moment to let his bearings catch up to him. Stifling the urge to vomit, he looked out the wide, bay windows and was surprised to see Angus sitting out in the yard on a small rise under a sapling, a mug of coffee in the grass beside him.

Leslie checked his watch, then furrowed his brow. Angus up and about before noon?

He pondered that strange turn of events as he trudged up two sets of risers to the third storey. Uncle Weldon's private study was silent. Leslie cautiously opened the closet door and looked in, standing to one side to let the sunlight by.

The tiny woman lay on her side in the shredded newspaper, her miniature ribs rising and falling slowly with laboured breath. Her head rose slightly as she glanced at him, then let it drop feebly back down.

Leslie gasped. He'd forgotten the water!

He returned to the study moments later with a shallow soap dish from the upstairs washroom sloshing with tapwater. He hesitated at the closet's threshold. Was he supposed to gas the thing before he opened the cage door?

Ultimately driven by the creature's weak, pathetic respiration Leslie decided to broker no delay: he snapped open the little wire door and carefully manoeuvred the soap dish inside, placing it gingerly beside the tiny woman. She took note of it and then crawled to its edge and began immediately to drink.

Leslie stood back and watched. "There, there," he whispered. "Go on, get your fill little lady."

After drinking she sat back down in the newspaper nest and washed her face by licking her hands. Leslie thought he should refill the soap dish so he reached in the take it. Her head turned and her dark eyes flashed.

Leslie hesitated. "You don't want me to take it away, huh?"

In less than the blink of an eye she was attacking him, repeatedly biting into his fingers with savage zeal, tearing free slivers of fresh and raking at the wounds' edges with her sharp fingers.

Leslie howled and fought to pull out of the cage. He dashed his hand against the side of the cage, knocking her loose as the bars sang. He slapped the door shut with his good hand and then spilled backward out of the closet, landing on his haunches.

"Holy shit," he said raggedly, clutching his injured hand to his chest.

The tiny woman stared at him through the bars, black eyes narrowed, needle-like teeth bared over her blood-smeared chin.

Leslie kicked the closet door closed, then shambled to the washroom to run his hand under the tap. He sighed, leaning against the mirror and feeling out the extent of his headache. The basin turned pink. He withdrew his hand and examined the slices critically, then wrapped a towel around it.

Back in the kitchen he found his great-grandfather's folio pages folded roughly under the table. He snatched them up and smoothed out the top face with the heel of his good hand.

It is essential not to underestimate the creature. Given any opportunity it will murder you. There is no quantity or quality of compassion sufficient to mollify its malice even an iota. Make not the mistake of grieving for it, for doing so would surely be your final error.
Leslie snorted. "This is insane. If I can never let her go, who's the real captive?"

He decided that it was all too weird and dangerous for the likes of him. He would collect Angus and they would drive away from this house and Leslie would never let his thoughts stray to the caged woman again. Let some other fool die releasing it, or spend his life in fear of same.

The folio he would burn.

He decided not to wait. He folded the pages in half and strode into the drawing room, tossing them into the hearth and then hunting around for something to get the fire going: kindling, newspaper, cardboard, garbage. He returned to the kitchen to grab the Tim Horton's bags and the pizza box but was interrupted as Angus walked in from the yard, cradling his empty coffee mug with a faraway look in his eyes.

"Dad, you're up."

"Um, yes."

"Could you think we could sit down and have a talk?" The boy swallowed awkwardly. "About yesterday?"

Leslie hovered. "I'm sort of in the middle of something here, Angus..."

"Why do you have a towel wrapped around your hand?"

"Um," said Leslie, looking around and blinking. He teased a chair out with his toe and then sat down heavily. "Yeah, sure. Let's talk. Sit down."

Angus took his mug to the sink and rinsed it, then sat down across from Leslie and casually pushed the latched sugar jar out of the way. Leslie's eyes flicked to follow it. Angus sighed and played with his hands, looking at his lap. "The thing is..." he started quietly.

The boy was very serious. Leslie grew concerned. "What's on your mind, Ang? You shouldn't be too bent out of shape about yesterday. It was my fault. I'm...under a lot of stress. I should probably say I'm sorry for how things got crazy."

Angus shook his head. "No, Dad -- I'm the one who's sorry."

"What do you mean?"

"If I look at just yesterday by itself then, yeah, right, maybe you look like the big asshole. But, you know, if I look at everything -- like, how things have been for the last while and my trouble at school and stuff -- if I look at everything all together it kind of looks like I'm the asshole."

Leslie bit his lip. "You're not an asshole, son --"

"No, I am," Angus replied quickly. "I'm not looking for sympathy here. It's just that I've been doing some thinking. I've been thinking about a lot of stuff, like about me and about you and Mom, and school and whatever." He looked up into Leslie's eyes, his own welling with earnest emotion. "I've been thinking about how I must seem to you, you know, if I look at from your point of view."

"How does it seem to you?"

"It seems stupid for somebody who's totally screwed up his own reputation to keep complaining about not having your trust," Angus said sadly, his expression open and frank. "I don't know why I never thought about it like that before, but it's true. How could you trust me? I've screwed up so much lately."

"Hey, everybody screws up. Especially when they're teenaged."

"Yeah, well, I guess it's time I stopped feeling sorry for myself about it. It's stupid. I mean, you're not psychic. You don't know what's in my head. You can only react to what I say and how I act, and the things I've said and shit I've done has stupid."

"You're not stupid," insisted Leslie, his heart aching.

"I know you love me," replied Angus, surprising Leslie with his unflinching candor. "And I love you too, Dad. And I want you to know something: I'm going to show you what kind of a person I can really be. I don't expect you to believe my promises -- I'm just telling you that things are going to change with me, and I want you to pay attention. Watch for it. And one day I'll earn your trust back, I totally swear."

Leslie got up, walked around the table, and embraced his son tightly. He tried not to cry because he thought it would embarrass them boy. "You're a good kid, Ang. You've always been a good kid. And I have faith in you. And...and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for telling me how you're feeling about all this, okay?"

"Yeah," said Angus. His nose was running.

Leslie straightened and wiped his eyes. "Now let's get our stuff into the car and get the hell home, huh? What do you say?"

"Alright, Dad."

When Angus left the kitchen Leslie turned his attention to clearing up the mess they had made, his heart feeling buoyant for the first time in a long, long stretch. He'd been telling Margaret for months that one day Angus would "just get it" and grow up a notch; she'd argued that was just Leslie's rationalization for piss-poor parenting and yet and here he was, vindicated.

His feeling of vindication faltered as he arrived at the kitchen sink and noticed Angus' mug, courteously rinsed out and placed on a paper napkin to dry.

Beside the sink lay the crumpled paper bag filled with road-side condiments in plastic or paper sleeves: ketchup, salt, vinegar, pepper. The fact that they had forgotten to grab some sugar had forced Angus to refuse coffee yesterday morning.

Leslie looked slowly from the mug to the bag of instant coffee on the counter to the latched sugar jar sitting on the corner of the table. He paled, realizing what had happened in a dizzying flash.

Angus was better.

Leslie sat down again and smoked a cigarette, deeply conflicted. Was his son now somehow brainwashed to act better, or had some better thing truly happened inside of him? Was it his son talking, or the powder? Had Leslie just drugged his only child?

But it wasn't a drug, was it? Grandfather clocks didn't get high. Narcotics didn't make things better.

Leslie rushed out to the Taurus and hopped up on the rear bumper to take a good look at the grandfather clock. It remained repaired. Against all reason it continued to tick despite the nearly flat angle of its pendulum. It looked brand new, but it was the same clock -- cleaner, highly functional, unscuffed -- but basically itself.

He jumped down and brushed his hands on his slacks. Angus came out of the house with his knapsack and tossed it in the back seat. "You feeling okay, Ang?" asked Leslie.

"Yeah, actually," Angus replied, closing the car door. "I feel pretty good today, Dad. Why?"

"No reason. Just let me know if you start to feel any different, okay?"

"How come?"

"Um, that pizza seems to be backfiring on me a bit. I'm worried some of the meat may have been off."

"Honestly Dad, I feel great."


Twenty minutes later, as they were about to leave, Leslie ran upstairs and returned with a bird cage covered in a black velvet drape, a rattling and clinking cardboard box under his arm. He carefully sandwiched the cage between a box of family albums and a dresser in the trunk, wedging it firm with the box. Angus hopped down from retying the grandfather clock. "What's that?" he asked.

"Antique bird cage," said Leslie quickly. "Is that clock good to go now?"

Angus nodded, tugging on the bungee. "It isn't going anywhere except wherever we drive."

"Good job."

They hit the road. Leslie invited Angus to plug his music player into the dashboard and together they rocked to the earsplitting strains of some awful, angry band. Uncle Weldon's decaying estate disappeared behind them. After lunch they switched spots and Angus drove the car under his father's watchful eye, sweating as he concentrated on keeping centred in the lane. "Watch your speed there," warned Leslie.

Angus checked the speedometer and eased off the gas. "Sorry."

"No need to be sorry. You're doing fine. You're doing great."

The teenager smiled. Leslie smiled, too. He hadn't felt so at ease with his son since before the boy hit puberty.

Come sundown they switched spots again, and after a cheeseburger dinner Angus fell asleep in the passenger seat. Leslie allowed himself to tenderly touch his son's cheek, and the pliant, smooth warmth made tears come to his eyes. With all the tension he hadn't realized just how much he missed Angus.

He considered calling Margaret but he'd forgotten to charge his telephone. He couldn't even get the screen to light up.

When he shifted against his seatbelt he heard his great-grandfather's folio crinkle in his jacket pocket. He yearned to read more, but knew he would get no opportunity until they reached the city again. He wanted to know everything there was to know about his pet and her wondrous extract. He burned to know how he could make more things better.

The glow of Halifax grew on the dark horizon. Leslie couldn't help but whistle a jolly tune.


Anonymous said...

I smell trouble

Mark said...

I haven't read today's story yet, but had to chime in on the car situation.

Go get 'em, CBB. I'm not entirely sure that insurance company knows with whom they are dealing, but they'll have a very good idea once you're finished with them.

Anonymous said...

There will be a price, I can taste it. Call me cynical if you like but nothing that good is that easy (if you call looking after a psychotic, murderous pixie easy.)

Mark said...

Haven't characters learned by now not to whistle a jolly tune this early in a CBB story? Only Simon of Space got away with whistling at all, I believe. This story has me rapt.

This is another excellent example of plunking something fantastic into everyday life and making it seem real. The recent rash of superhero movies and especially the popularity of the new show "Heroes" (haven't watched, so not a plug) illustrate the public's appetite for this kind of fiction. Not saying those compare in quality to this -- just saying that the phenomenon is interesting.

Teddy said...

Excuse me, but if the police keep issuing parking tickets, shouldn't they be running the plate through a database or something? Shouldn't it come up as stolen, at which point they impound it and notify you the car was found? That's what would happen here.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Anonymous,

Indeed! How could it be a CBB story without trouble?

Dear Mark,

I'm waiting for a call from the adjuster today. Wish me luck.

Dear Mandrill,

To be fair, I'd be pretty murderous too if I were kept in a cage for many, many years.

Dear Simon,

And there, due to a confluence of coincidence, have you stumbled upon the very scene I was watching with my daughter when the idea for this story first came to me. It's a small media world.

Dear Teddy,

In Toronto the police (or parking enforcement pseudo-police) write tickets by hand on paper. They don't typically run the plate through their computer unless they suspect further mischief.

Cheeseburger Brown

Moksha Gren said...

I'm curious how long this stuff lasts. I mean..the mansion was decrepit. Assuming it was being maintained with fairy dust (sorry..."extract"), then we have to assume this stuff wears off. And how much worse do things get when it they stop being "better"?

I shall join the chorus and say that I, too, smell trouble

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Moksha,

The effects are permanent. The reason for not applying the extract indiscriminantly will be revealed in due time.

Dear Simon,

One example of reader influence would be the question of Leslie self-applying the extract. Originally I had planned to address this issue until deeper into the tale, but after seeing that the question was on people's minds I bumped up that particular piece of exhibition from Chapter 6 to Chapter 4. If it was being wondered about, I reckoned, I shouldn't leave the issue dangling too long.

In general these stories are too short to be too profoundly changed by reader input, though, as above, reader input does result in some tweaking.

In January I'm considering doing a kind of reader-driven choose-your-own-CBB-adventure experiment, but I haven't yet worked out the specifics of how it would work.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

"Angus and I are okay for the moment, and we have found the company of a good woman who means to help us. This can only bode well."


Nice to see cheeseburgers, by the way (man, now I have to get one). So can I take credit for shifting the turn of events on Friday?

Now that I'm all caught up on CBB's backlog, it's back to waiting, waiting, waiting (and hoping they give me something to do at my job soon)...

Teddy said...

I would suspect that the language used is quite particular. Especially measuring in this spectrum, with such an abstract and situational concept as being "better", I think one could always get better.

I think, though, that things get better only in the eyes of the person who applies the powder. The world warps to how it ought to be through their eyes. Really, it's all going to come swiftly apart once you start making PEOPLE better. Clocks are on a finite scale, there's only such a certain degree of precision and functionality one can bestow it.

A person, though? Some people think Angus IS better, I'm sure. And Leslie already believes he's better. Self-application would only work on a person who knows how they could be better, and then, it will make them greedy. There is always that much further to go, that 25 pounds more to bench, that slightly more beautiful woman at the end of the bar, that slightly better payscale increase.

Also, Leslie is already better in the eyes of some, I'm sure. What if they applied it? What if his son, who believes/d there's all kinds of better he could be, applied it?

The use of the word "Better" is very tricky here, used well for it's imprecision. And I like how his relative jargonized it.


Moksha Gren said...

Very true, Simon. But, if I can reapply, how much better could I get? Maybe that's what ticks off the other fairies. Or if the extract has a fairy-centric view of what "better" means...maybe I eventually turn into a fairy myself

Or maybe it just doesn't do anything if you sprinkle it on something that's already fine. As an example, nothing gets better about the paper cone, or the rubber gloves, or the sugar bowl.

"Go ahead, sprinkle some on me? What? No effect? Told ya I was perfect!"

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was wondering about the subjectivity inherent in the term "better"...

Here's a question: If the little fairy-chick is near death after not having water for one night, how could she be so perky the first time Leslie showed up (assumedly several weeks after his uncle had last cared for her)? I know she wouldn't necessarily die -- "low yield" was the stated consequence -- but her condition upon introduction seemed to indicate that someone had been acting as caretaker in the interim.