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Be Careful What You Ask For … by Désirée Matlock

For Mark Reale

 “And then the alien’s claws reached around the door.”

The fire crackled as Joe’s voice hitched excitedly. Leanne chuckled; we were all enjoying the game.

I should never have joined in. It all started last week when Jimmy won an RV and a camping trip in a drawing.  He’d invited us all along. I’d agreed, but that had been before the week I’d just had. The worst week of my life. We had agreed we were going to follow all the camping tropes, hit all the high notes of camping. As city people, we’d all gotten excited at the idea of the great outdoors and some drunken carousing. Of course, now… I definitely was no longer in the mood.

A few minutes ago, the six of us had been gathered around the campfire gossiping when Penny had started it by saying, “It was a dark and stormy night, and the wind was creaking through the trees in the moonlight.” My gut had dropped, worried she was going to tell a ghost story. No. Let it be witches or monsters… I prayed silently to myself.

Then Joseph had added the next line, “The dark of night was suddenly broken as a spacecraft crash landed deep in the woods. The only thing nearby was a cabin with six friends who were camping.”

I had relaxed; aliens were a safe subject.  Joe raised his eyebrows at each of us and pointed in a circle to really drive home his point that he was talking about us. It was ridiculous enough that I’d even grinned. I really should have walked away, but I was interested in hearing the story, and it seemed safe enough.

Marla sitting just to Joseph’s right had bounced up and down in excitement as she realized it was her turn, “Um, okay! Hmmm… They had no idea the danger they were now in, but they heard the noise and went to investigate.”

Marla then gestures to pass the torch to me, and I’d added, “The UFO appeared to have been cracked in half from the impact, but the driver’s seat appeared empty as the six friends approached.” This was getting fun, and we were still on the subject of aliens, so I was letting my guard down. Foolish.

After the week I’d had, I should have had no interest in hearing any scary stories. After all, I’d been living one. But, we had agreed that we were going to follow all the typical camping tropes, and really get the most out of our free camping trip. And of course, the campfire tales were one of said tropes.

In retrospect, I should have warned my friends. Or stayed away, or told them what the gypsy had told me.

It was finally Leanne’s turn, and she added, “They all wandered back to the cabin, disappointed that they had not found any alien visitor… And…. now they were planning to call the authorities about the UFO. However, when they returned, they found that a tree had knocked out the phone and electric. It was as dark as night inside the cabin, and their flashlights did little to brighten the gloom.”

“Nice one, Leanne,” Jimmy complimented her. The two of those were probably finally going to sleep together if left to their own on this trip. If I knew Marla, she’d be watching to divert one or the other of them. We had all agreed years ago it was a stupid idea to let them sleep together, and she’d been their unwitting chaperone ever since. So far so good, we figured.

Leanne batted her eyes at him, and then downed her third beer in one long gulp. Uh oh.

Penny watched in amazement, and then realized it was back to her now. “That’s when…” and gestured to Joseph.

“Aw that doesn’t count!” Marla stood for a second. “Needs to be longer than that!”

“Too bad!” Penny laughed and leaned back. No arguing with her. It was Joseph’s turn.

“Okay, let me see.” I got worried that Joe was going to change the topic.

“And then the alien’s claws reached around the door.”

I watched Marla as the story circle reached her. Suddenly I realized, as I watched an ethereal spooky look cross her face, that she was about to change the subject matter entirely.

“No!” I whispered, terrified my friends would learn my new secret.

But Marla’s words were coming out anyway… “And that’s when the ghost appeared.”

And it did. Oh boy did it.

I crumpled to the ground, passing out against my will. I watched, horrified and disembodied, floating above the events as my own form rose from the ground, white and semi-transparent, completely transformed into the appearance and presence of Lady Arabella Forester, the angry woman who had been living within me for the last six days. I hadn’t meant to become her host, but damned if I could completely get rid of her.

—–

As she tromped around the fire, scattering embers and screeching nonsense at my friends, I desperately tried to figure out what to do! What could I do, as a disembodied self, I wasn’t that skilled at helping. I tried getting back into my head, but Arabella is quite fiesty. She really doesn’t like to share; my body being male doesn’t seem to stop her.

It took all five of my friends to get me back into the RV and lock Arabella away. She banged around the RV quite a bit, bruising and slamming my body around, quite distressing to say the least. My friends were trying to work out what to do, and what had even happened.

“What the heck is wrong with Paul?” Marla said.

“Hell if I know,” Jimmy added. “Maybe he’s possessed?”

Joe added, “He’s lost his fucking mind is what’s wrong with him. Your story freaked him out.”

“My story?” Penny said, in disbelief. “We all did that. It’s just a ghost story, for god’s sake!”

I floated disembodied above them trying to tell them to speak the spell. I should have spoken earlier. I should have told them the gypsy’s spell. Dammit! Too late now.

I finally pushed my way into Leanne’s body. She twitched hard. Leanne fought me tooth and nail, trying to force her way back up to the surface, but I managed to get all the words out. “Fleeby Taboora Pamnacht!” I said, even though it sounded ridiculous, because I knew it would work. It sounded strange in Leanne’s drunk voice. But hey. The only way to do it.

Joe started freaking out that now it was happening to Leanne, but the banging in the RV stopped, and I turned to the others, in Leanne’s tiny little body. I whispered that it was safe to open the doors, but no one was allowed to mention ghosts again around me. They all nodded, stunned into silence.

Leanne’s body passed out and I went black. A few hours later, when I woke up, I was in my own body.

Jimmy and Marla smiled at me, while Joe handed me a piece of chocolate. “S’more?”

Everyone looked shaken up, but thankfully no one mentioned anything.  I sat up and asked for graham crackers, the fire warm and comforting to watch. I really was glad we were all getting together.

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Rabbit Poop by Désirée Matlock

For Nermina Krneta

 It smelled like rabbit poop.

It was bedtime, and I was tucking Tasha into bed at her Grandma’s house before heading out on my date night with her father. Her little arms popped out from under the blanket, and she pinned them to her sides, tightening the blanket around herself..

“What did, sweetie?”

“The hole in the wall.” She pointed, and I looked. The wallpaper still looked the same, tiny wildflowers scattered across the surface of the wall, one of many girlish touches this room still had from when I was young, and I had lived here.

“There’s no hole, sweetie.”

“No, the rabbit hole. I got up close to it. It smelled like rabbit poop and dirt and sunshine.”

My blood ran cold. Her words triggered something I hadn’t thought about in decades. I remembered a dream I had up until I was about twelve, a recurring dream, with Mr. Whiskers the Rabbit. He’d visit my room by burrowing into the wall right exactly there. It was too great a coincidence. Were dreams genetic? Could you inherit a dream?

“Well, I hope he comes back tonight. I liked talking to the rabbit man.”

I felt ridiculous, but I remembered one thing about those dreams. One thing came up now, flooding back to me. Mr. Whiskers, the mischievous rabbit, had tried every night before he left to get me to come through the burrow with him. And I had always refused. I had had a baby brother to watch over. And I couldn’t leave him alone. But that was decades ago, and Tasha had no little brother to keep her here.

“Sure, honey, talk to your dream friend. But, do one thing for me.”

“What is it, momma?”

“Just… “ I felt silly. I was pandering. There was no Mr. Whiskers inside the wall. But I needed to say it anyway. If I didn’t, and she went missing, I’d feel terrible if I hadn’t said this first. “Just, no matter what Mr. Whiskers says to you, you stay right here in your room, okay? On this side of the wall. Okay?”

“Okay, momma.” She gave me one last peck on the hand, and then rolled over on her side. I hummed her favorite lullaby while I rubbed her back. That was our thing. She was soon fast asleep. I stayed in the room a little longer than maybe I ought to have. Jack was a touch impatient, but holding her and rubbing her back had calmed me down, gotten the chill out of my blood.

We said our goodbyes to my mother, who promised to check in on Tasha at least once an hour and told me not to worry. My mother held me, pushed my hair away from my face, and said, “Moms have a hard time with the first sleepover. Tasha will be fine.”

As we pulled away from the curb for our date, Jack looked at me, “What’s wrong honey?”

“Tasha said something that scared me a little, about her dreams.”

“If you’re worried she’ll have bad dreams, that’s why your mom will be there, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I’m just worried. I’ll shake it off.”

“Tasha is a big girl now, and brave. She’ll be fine.” Brave. Brave enough to walk into a wall maybe, where I hadn’t been brave enough. I’d been scared, under the need to care for my brother. I sighed deeply.

My mother’s beautiful Victorian painted lady grew smaller and smaller in the rear view, and I wondered whether I was making the biggest mistake of my life, leaving Tasha in the bedroom I grew up in.

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The Bench by Désirée Matlock

For Briana Y., thanks for the inspiration!

I had been sitting on the bench for so long my butt was numb… That’s the first problem.

The second problem was that I was here at all. Purgatory was totally not what I’d expected. I had been told by my hippie parents that the universe was a continuum, and when I died, I’d be reborn as a turtle or a butterfly or something awful if that’s what I deserved, but I wouldn’t because I was perfect according to them.

They pampered and loved on me, their only daughter, born in the summer of love, gave me everything I wanted, and when I was older and I hit the real world, it hit me hard. So, I hid from life with drugs, all the way through. And then I OD’ed just before my 45th birthday. Which is how I ended up here beside all these other losers waiting on benches alongside the road to the Gates of Heaven, apparently.

What a non-religious love child is doing in the purgatory outside of the Pearly Gates, sitting on an ivory bench, I don’t know. But here I sit, watching angels walk past on the other side of a wrought iron fence that tingles with what I would classify as magic. I suppose these folks would call it God’s grace. Strange, alien concepts suddenly confront me. Each of the angels is ignoring me, impossibly beautiful, with seemingly saccharine smiles on their faces. I’m not sure if I feel like that’s for me. Maybe I am mis-filed. I’m so not supposed to be here.

My butt being numb is really starting to bother me, so I start to stand, wiggling my toes, and a voice peals louder than brass horns, “Please stay seated until you are called. Thank you for your patience. Your approximate wait time is twelve standard heaven hours.” The voice changes as it reads off the time, and I realize that I’m listening to an automated voice.

Well, crap.  I sit back down.

“What’s the punishment for standing up then?”

No answer.

I lay down on the bench, and no voice peals out to tell me to sit back up, so I curl my arms behind my head, and close my eyes. Now all of me can at least be as asleep as my butt.

Another person on a nearby bench starts to say that I am not allowed to do that. “Bite me.”

I must have fallen asleep because the loud angel voice is waking me up; like the loudest alarm clock I’ve ever had, it sounds like it is going off in my head. “Hey! Moon Carlisle, it’s your turn! Our Sainted and Glorious Peter will see you now.  Please report to the gates ahead and on your left.”

It continues on repeat until I stand up and start walking.

Ahead of me, a robed, winged, impossibly beautiful young man who looks like a Versace model stands. I tuck my hands under my armpits. Pretty boys always make me nervous.

“Hey.”

His mouth opens and his voice is like smooth wine and a good smoke. “Please name the reasons you feel you belong in heaven.”

“I don’t.”

“Okay… Why not?” I have his attention.

“Because I don’t believe in God or Heaven.”

His arms spread, his wings spread, and he gestures upwards with his chin momentarily. “Even faced with this?”

“Yes. Of course. I’m being delusional. I’d like to go back now please. I want to be reborn as a puppy.”

“A puppy? Why?”

“They never get faced with drugs. I had a little guy, and he never had to battle with himself whether to take heroin or attend his cousin’s wedding.”

“Sounds like a good idea then.” He nods. My hope spires up.

“I can’t arrange that, but I can do something else that would give you a chance to have a brand new life.”

“Okay. Deal. Do it.”

“You don’t mind where I send you?”

“Sure. But I’m not interested in ever being one of the people in your iron cage here.”

His slight smile shows my words struck a chord.

“Deal.” He touches my shoulder, and I suddenly feel I am falling and falling, the sky spirals into darkness, and I open tired eyes in a dark room.

“Where am I?” My voice is cracked and dry; my lips feel split.

A nurse walks up to me. “Sweetie, you OD’ed. You’ve been out for a few days.”

I laugh, cry a little, and choke on my dry throat.  “Well, now I know how long twelve heaven hours are.”

“What, sweetie?” the nurse asks.

“Nothing.”

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Odd Beginnings by Désirée Matlock

For Atlanta Napier

 Funny enough, it didn’t start how you would think.

“What?” She trembles on the spot in front of me. “What are you saying? You’re not attacking me?”

I notice that my gun hand was slacking a little. I’ve been holding the heavy thing up for a full fifteen minutes now. “Of course I am. But it didn’t start as a plan to attack you. I just wanted the doll. And you said no and you said no. You wouldn’t change your mind.”

“Well I still haven’t. You can’t have her.”

“But, why not? I wondered. Why not? This woman,” I gesture with the gun, “25 years of hunting for the head of a very specific doll, I finally find it, and it’s lost its whammy. Not only has it lost its whammy, but you yourself will NOT part with it.” I’m yelling now, and I cannot keep myself from it. I’ve focused on that damn doll since the day it walked away from me. From my wrecked home. I need to chill out, or the doll would win. Again.

“Go to hell,” the woman across from me says, eyes squinting in hate. I recognize that hate.

“I don’t know how you did it, but you got into this woman. What did you do to the woman you stole the body from? Where the hell is she?”

Her eyes glint across from me, a moment’s pride in her act. And I know I’ll have to kill her. But not with the gun. It hadn’t worked on the doll years ago, and I know deep down it won’t work now. The demon within her will just flit into the nearest thing, probably me. Damned if I’ll host that wicked creature.

“I guess it doesn’t matter how you transferred yourself into the woman, but refusing to give me the doll head means you need that stupid ceramic home with its plastic eyelashes. You need it for some reason. Why do you need it?”

“You’re talking like a crazy person, you know that.” This stings, since I’ve spent ten years in a psych ward after they found me in the ashes.

My radio crackles to life, “Found it. There’s got to be dozens of doll heads here.”

I bark back across the phone, “Smash them and then torch it.”

Screaming, the woman across from me lunges toward my hands, toward the gun. The sound of something glass-like smashing to bits comes in tinny through the speaker. “No!” She falls to the ground mid-lunge, like a marionette that has lost its strings.

“Oh yes. You’ll never hurt another child. Never destroy another home, Betsy.” I grow stronger, my trembling stopped. She can’t hurt me any more.

“You know nothing. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know the damage you’ll do!” Desperation in her eyes. Fear.

It is a trick. At least I hope so.  “Keep going,” I bark into the two-way.

As the crash and tinkle of breaking dolls continued, the voice got lower and less sweet, and then it turned into a bare whisper, “I wasn’t Betsy, I wasn’t Molly, I wasn’t Dolly Dee, I wasn’t even Poc. Even Poc is gone. Oh!” The moan turned whisper made my skin crawl.

The sound of tinkling and breaking china ends finally a few seconds later, and then Stone’s voice comes back through the two-way, “I’ve got kerosene on everything in this room, now, kid. The whole house will go up once I start this up. We need to get out of here.”

I walk backwards out of the room the woman is in and down the hall backwards. She doesn’t move, just sobs in a heap on the floor. I keep the gun trained in the direction she’s in, and walk outside. Smoke is just starting to flood out of the basement window.

“Stone? You make it out, too?” I speak into the two-way again.

“Yup.” He stands beside me. Startled me, but I am so glad we succeeded, I hoot and jump in his arms. Then we run.

It’s been three weeks since the fire. I’m back in the psych ward, as a second offender. Stone says he’ll keep tabs on whether she shows up anywhere else. But I really think we got her. I may never get out, but at least that damned doll will never be able to hurt anyone else.

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Social Politics and Other Headaches by Désirée Matlock

For Susan D.

I just ran into the ex-husband of one of my FB friends.

I looked at Jen, “Do you mean Facebook? Or is there a new thing called FB?”

“Don’t make fun of me.”

Our coffees were growing cold between us, but we were gabbing still. This was our standard Saturday ritual.

“I’m not. I’m really not. I am never up on these things. I’m ten years behind every trend, you know that. Honest.”

“Well, then, no, there’s nothing new. I mean FACE BOOK.” She over-pronounced the words and gave me a dirty look.

“So? What happened?”

“When?” Jen asked, having forgotten the original point.

“The ex-husband? The Facebook friend?”

“Oh! Yeah. His name is Jack, and he goes to the same yoga class as me. He’s so hot. Oh my god. And he flirted with me. I almost want to see if I can get the dirt on their relationship.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Um, I barely know her. So, I need to get closer to her, so I can ask something personal like that.”

“See, but if you did that, you’d be too close to her to then go and date him. It’s a real catch 22.”

Jen looked at me in disbelief, “Seriously?”

I almost stood up, I was so adamant, “Yeah! Seriously. You don’t violate the girlfriend pact.  If you were close enough to her to get the straight skinny on him, he’d be off limits.”

“Oh crap.” Her head slumped down onto her hands, and I picked up my coffee and started sipping, thinking through the problem.

“Why not just date him anyway? Find out for yourself.”

“Well, because Mindy seems to have a good head on her shoulders, from what I’ve seen. And if she dumped his ass, she probably had a good reason.”

“Maybe he snores?”

“I could put up with that.”

“You say that, but you’ve never been with a real freight train of a guy. The kind that keeps you awake for hours.” She raised her eyebrows. “And NOT in the good way,” I added to clarify.

“Well, there has to be something wrong,” she threw in. “There just has to be. Mindy’s too smart to leave a good guy,”

“Wait, do you mean Mindy Westerling?”

“Yeah,” Jen’s face perked up, “do you know her?”

“She’s one of my clients.”

“Okay, you totally need to befriend her to find out for me.”

“She’s totally a client! I can’t do that. I don’t cross that line either. Next thing you know, she wants free work ‘because we’re friends.’ Nu-uh.” I sat back with my coffee. I noticed she hadn’t drunk her coffee. “Pick up your damn coffee, Jen, and start drinking. I’m not drinking yours for you.”

“Fine,” Jen slumped a bit. “You sure? Jack is so cute.”

“So, date him and find out.”

“Ugh, friend politics was weird enough before social media came along. Now there’s a whole new set of extra levels of friendship, and you just never know where you stand. You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m still not turning a client into a friend. Remember Donna the Clingy one? I gave her three thousand dollars of free consulting before I could get rid of her. She started as me trying to turn a client into a friend.”

“Fine! No, I mean it. I won’t ask again.” She tried puppy dog eyes. I shook my head no.

“Okay,” Jen said, ”then I need a good way to find out without having to befriend her.”

I thought for a minute, “So, find out who her best friend is, make friends with her, invite her out for wine, and get her to blab. Friends love to blab about each other when they’re drunk. Not me, and not about you.”

“Oh, definitely,” Jen added, looking only slightly guilty.

“But don’t mention you know Mindy. That way there’s no violation of the friend code.”

“Will do.” Jen got her phone out and started looking through Mindy’s facebook feed.

“Well, let me know how it goes then.” I clicked my coffee mug against hers. “But here’s a bet. I bet you’re sleeping with him before the next time I see you, and without caring one bit what Mindy says. Or Mindy’s friend.”

Jen laughed. “You’re probably right.”

I slapped a ten dollar bill down to cover our coffees, and we headed out.

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Dude That Smells Funky by Désirée Matlock

For Cal. Thank you for the great starter!

“Dude, that smells funky.”

Jake turned his head away from the scratch and sniff I was holding up toward him. His hands came up in a mock defensive posture. “What the fuck is that?”

“I know, right? And I didn’t even scratch at it.” I returned the scratch and sniff sticker on its yellowing waxy paper backing to the plastic baggie I had put it in when I found it.

Jake looked at me, “Dude, if you knew, why’d you make me smell it then?” The sound of the game as someone scored, and the pounding of feet on the bleachers above drowned out our voices for a moment.

“Just cause. It’s so nasty. Smells like maggots or something.”

Jake thought for a second, “Something between rotted old wine and meat… like a bad dumpster. Where’d you get it?”

Lynnette piped in. “Let me smell.” I handed her the baggie. She cracked it open slightly and then turned away, gagging slightly.

“Gross, right?” Jake smiled at her.

From where we were all sitting under the bleachers, Lynette’s hair caught a little ray of evening sunlight and glowed. A puff of Jake’s vapor cloud behind her whirled through the sunlight. She was so damn pretty. She thought deeply for a second, “Yeah, I smell the rotting smell. But I also smell something like when my folks took me to Hawaii, and we climbed a volcano… What’s that called?”

“Brimstone.” Saying the word reminded me of dozens of video games about hell. I think that’s where I’d learned the word.

“That’s it, brimstone! I smell brimstone. Maybe your scratch and sniff is about Hawaii… What’s the picture on it?”

We all peered at it through the baggie.

“The picture on it is so small.” I looked at it, “Looks like a goat?”

“Standing up like a person? Weird.” Lynette peered at it, too.

“So, where’d you get it?” Jake repeated his question, while he handed me the vape.

“That’s the weird part. My dad went to a police auction yesterday. Got himself a new desk. I was told to clean it up. He keeps trying to give me chores,” I paused to puff, “make a man out of me.”

Jake sniggered, and Lynette leaned over and put her head down on my shoulder for a moment. I passed her the vape we were all sharing, and reveled in watching her lips form an “o” around the device as she drew in a breath of pot. She stretched back and lay down for a second.

“So? What’s that have to do with the stinky-ass antique sticker?” Jake asked, pulling me from fascinatedly watching Lynette’s chest breathe in and out.

“The sticker was in the bottom drawer, tucked into an envelope under some kind of contractual legal papers and shit,” I finished. “I threw away everything else, but kept the sticker.”

Lynette snorted, “I mean, have they even made scratch and sniffs since our parents were kids?”

“What else was in the envelope?” Jake frowned.

“Nothing, man. Just this stupid sticker. You’d think there’d be guns and shit in those drawers, since the dude they belonged to was some kind of big wig dealer, but nah.”

“Weird. Man, that sticker is so schnasty, dude.”

“Let’s scratch it up good so it’s really stinky and leave it in Julie’s bag.” Julie, who Lynette had been frenemies with since grade school.

Jake chuckled. “Awesome! I’m in. How ‘bout you, man? It’s your sticker?”

“Whatever Lynette wants, man, she gets,” I said and was rewarded with a little smile and a peck on the cheek as Lynette sat back up. She stood, long legs stretching for a second, then started searching the bleachers above for where Julie was sitting.

We got up and followed her. Lynette eventually spotted Julie’s feet, almost out of reach, and her bag was on the row of bleacher right above that; we could see a little of the strap. Julie was so fond of that purse. It was some kind of ridiculously fancy one that came with a certificate of authenticity. Her mother had gotten it for her in Italy on business, as she would tell anyone who would listen.

Lynette took the sticker from me, pulled it out of the baggie, which fell to the ground, and the smell of rotting flesh and decadence and hellfire or whatever grew strong around us.

“Dude, it smells so nasty. This is gonna be great!” Lynette laughed. Another scoring play out on the field and then the cheerleaders must have come out because everyone started chanting. Lynette chose that moment, with feet pounding and everyone yelling along, to climb the bleacher supports, and I watched her from below. I could do that all day. She deftly climbed and giggled down at us. I puffed on the vape, breathed in deep. Life was good. The world was starting to really blur at the edges.

She was reaching out toward Julie’s bag now, other elbow hooked through the support beams, sticker in fingertips. Then she remembered, and pulled her hand back and scratched at the sticker hard for a second, and started reaching back out toward Julie’s bag.

That’s when a fireball erupted in the air between myself and Lynette, and vanished as fast as it appeared. Mid-air between us, a horned demon with cloven feet and a bright red tail appeared.  He thudded to the ground, and Lynette swung down to the ground beside him, having let go of the bleacher in shock.

Seeing her so close to the creature scared the crap out of me, so I snatched out toward Lynette, pulling her behind me out of some kind of instinct. My arm brushed against the demon for a split-second, and I felt my skin burn away in that spot. Hurt like a mother-fucker. Worse than the time my step-dad put out a cigarette on me when I was four. But then it stopped hurting completely and disappeared as Lynette handed me back the sticker.

“Woah,” Jake said.

“Dude!” I said, as my blood grew cold. I started to shake.

The smell of the scratch and sniff was suddenly incredibly stronger. I could hear someone up on the bleachers above ask who farted. The demon rolled his shoulders and stretched. “Ahhh. Room to breathe.” His voice sounded like a few voices at once heard through shifting gravel and sand. It sounded bad. Like, really bad. Like death come for you. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

“Which of you holds my token?”

“What?” Lynette blurted out.

Jake dropped to the ground in a sudden case of uncontrollable giggles. “He means your scratch and sniff, assholes.” He started cackling, couldn’t seem to stop himself. The demon flicked a finger at Jake, and the laughter turned to quiet as Jake instantly fell asleep.

“Who holds my token?” the demon repeated. I held out the sticker toward him.

“What possessed you to summon me by daylight so close to a place of worship?” He pointed in the direction of the church steeple, barely visible in the fading evening light.

“We didn’t know, man, we didn’t know what the sticker could do. Look, take it, we didn’t know.”

The demon shuffled his cloven feet, and whipped his tail around a touch, as he approached me, ungainly, unbeautiful, and deadly. He placed his horned, black-eyed red and bony face within an inch of mine and said, “Do you mean it? I can have it?” The stink of him was overpowering. My eyes hurt from it.

“Sure, dude. It’s yours.” He snatched the sticker from my hands and whirled away from me. Out of nowhere, a fire conjured from the ground in front of us, and he danced around it in a swirl of cloven legs, whipping tail, and bowed horns. He threw the sticker into the fire, and immediately, the scent of brimstone and rotting anything disappeared with the sticker. The fire swallowed itself into the ground.

“Thank you, child. I treasure the freedom you have granted me. I shall use it wisely, pillaging and purging and destroying whatsoever I choose!” He spread his chest out, beat upon it briefly, and took a deep breath. Then his gaze returned to us, and Lynette hugged me from behind, scared. “I shall grant you the same power of my previous token holders, in granting your earthly desires, but summon me more wisely next time. No churches!” He pointed. “No crowds!” He pointed above. “And no daylight!”

He disappeared in a puff of smoke. Literally. Not like the wispy stuff you see on stage, but a cloud of black smoke that burned the nostrils when it hit and made the eyes water. As it wafted through the bleachers above, voices sounded upset. A few heads peeked through the holes in the bleachers and Julie’s voice shrilled out at them, “What the hell are you guys up to down there? Knock it off!”

Jake woke up, and Lynette spoke first. “Dude. What the hell?”

I looked at Lynette, “I get whatever wishes I want?”

Jake looked at me, “Where’s the sticker?”

Lynette came around in front of me and hugged me tightly, trying to comfort the fear out of me. I figured I still looked like I was about to crap my pants. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t.

“Yeah, you get whatever wishes you desire, sounded like he said.” Lynette looked at me sweetly, “That’s something, right?”

“Dude, how am I supposed to summon him without the sticker, though?”

Lynette and I sat back down next to Jake on the ground, and he pulled his vape back out of his pocket.  “Damned if I know,” Jake said, through a cloud of white vapor.

“Whatever,” Lynette said.

“Yeah, whatever,” I repeated.

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The Misfortune of Two Jays – Désirée Matlock

James’ life was forever changed when he bought that haunted hot dog cart.

He’d always wanted to start a nice vegan wrap truck going, but the trucks were all way out of his budget, and all he’d been able to afford was this second-hand cart. He’d fixed it up, repaired the tires, and gotten his license. Everything had been coming together so beautifully, it was like magic.  The money for the new green umbrella had been offered by the family of the guy who’d owned the cart before. They’d even offered to pay for any new parts the cart needed, but it turned out it had just needed cleaning, and all worked perfectly.

The first weird thing he’d noticed was back at the garage, when he was trying to stick new decals on the side of the cleaned-up cart. The decals showed the five initial menu choices he and Jenny had decided on, with nice pictures that they’d taken a few days earlier of their sample meals. As soon as he applied a decal, it came peeling off. He tried four times, and then called the signage company, who immediately sent over replacements that also peeled right off. He tried taping the corners and that had also failed, so he’d had to settle for glueing all the decals to two posterboards and leaning them against the cart.

He’d placed a fold out table and two chairs, plus his beautiful vegan wrap stand with its bright green umbrella right next to his uncle’s garage- a great corner, honestly, that he’d never have been able to afford without his family. They were very lucky, and very optimistic. Jenny had made herself a beautiful sandwich board with big photos advertising their non-GMO organic veggie options on the cheap, and would be standing out by the traffic acting ridiculous to bring in customers, until they could afford to pay someone else to do it. James excitedly put on his apron and stood ready to pass out as many lunches as possible.

“I love you, Mr. food cart co-owner!” Jenny called out from her spot on the corner.

“I love you, too, Mrs. food cart co-owner!” James called back. They grinned at each other and got ready for customers.

And so, ‘Two Jays Vegan Wraps’ had gotten its start on a beautiful May morning, with James and Jenny cheerfully standing at the ready as the first lunch customers started pouring out of the financial district, walking toward the restaurant district, and right passed the cart.

Six people had walked by before their first customer stopped. A nice middle aged lady. So exciting!

James smiled as the nice middle aged lady ordered an avocado mock turkey wrap.

And that’s when all hell had broken loose. The cart went crazy, cabinet door slamming shut repeatedly. The nice middle aged lady had squealed and walked away.

The cart settled down only once the lady was all the way out of sight.

“What the heck was that?” James said, scratching his head and putting the cart back to rights.

Jenny had walked up, worried looking, “I have no idea. Is there an animal in it?”

They searched the entire cart, no sign of anything wrong, and definitely no animals. Strange.

Then a grey-haired man in a grey suit had walked up, and James thought he was in the clear, because the cart did nothing. That was, until the grey-haired man ordered a mock chicken wrap with vegan cheese. Then, suddenly, the cart started acting up again. Plus now the umbrella started flapping open and closed like a flamingo. The signs had all flown like frisbees off into the street, and the grey-haired man waved his arms in defeat and said there was no way he was ordering food from the crazy cart.

All day it continued, with customers being driven away by the cart, and with James and Jenny getting more and more worried that their investment was going to drive them into financial ruin. A hipster who stared at his phone the entire time had only had time to check in on Yelp before the cart had flipped out. He never even got a chance to order anything.

As night fell, and not one successful sale had occurred, James had started packing up.

Before everything was put away, a man with a child in tow walked up. The kid was chomping on a hot dog he’d probably gotten from another cart somewhere, and the man ordered the veggie wrap with vegan cheese, and the cart had done nothing. James had started preparing the food, and still the cart did nothing. The man received his wrap, and paid for it, and the cart did nothing!

The one and only order of the day to be successfully placed, prepared and paid for walked away, leaving James scratching his head. Maybe the cart would let him do this after all. He packed up and went home, exhausted from picking up after a hot dog cart that was throwing tantrums like a toddler.

The next day, it took James and Jenny only two walk-ups to realize that just wasn’t going to happen. If they kept this up, the cart would tear itself apart with all the banging around before they made enough money to buy another block of vegan cheese. It had to be solved today. He started packing up the cart, planning to ask every single expert on hauntings that he could find on the internet exactly how to exorcise a demon from a hot dog cart.

As Jenny was packing up the table and James was pulling the umbrella down, a woman walked out of the $5.00 psychic shop across the way. She was dressed as a typical gypsy, but she looked more like a trailer park mom than an exotic moorish beauty.

“You realize that the cart is haunted, right?” The trailer park gypsy ran a finger along the cart surface.

“Yup. Never seen anything like this. We’re considering our options, but,” and James leaned in tight for this one, to whisper in the trailer park gypsy’s ear, “right now an exorcism seems about right.”

“Unnecessary, truly. And that’s not a demon. He’s not evil at all. He’s just pissed off.”

Jenny walked up, “He?”

“Yes, He. His name is Marco, and he used to own this cart. He’s over there scowling at you right now.” The gypsy pointed toward the spot to the rear of the cart where James had been standing all day. James shuddered.

“My name’s Louise, by the way. I can help you. I won’t charge for my help, except to ask that I can get a free lunch when I want one, which might be every few weeks. And also that you sometimes send people my way and tell people I’m the real deal. But only if I solve your problem. Deal?”

James looked at Jenny, and she nodded vigorously, eyes huge, waving her hands in a low pushing motion. James interpreted that as a yes.

“Okay, sure, Louise. I‘m James, this is Jenny. And apparently, that’s Marco.” The cart made a small squeaking noise.

She stood staring at the cart for a very long moment, then closed her eyes for a few seconds and murmured things, then she opened and rubbed her eyes again.

“Okay, put your cart away, and then come on over to the shop. I’ll be ready for you guys then.” Louise trundled off.

Jenny laughed and said that she wasn’t sure whether Louise been taking a short nap, or communing with spirits or what.  But a few minutes later, there they were. James and Jenny had never ever entered a $5.00 psychic store with their stupid glowing signs, but hey. Anything was better than a haunted hot dog cart.

Louise’s shop was not draped in scarves or long curtains or tassels the way James had been expecting. In fact, it looked like a run down store-front with a nice table in it, mostly. Very disappointing. Jenny’s slight frown said she  felt the same way.

James and Jenny both sat down across from Louise, who was laying things down on the table across from them. There was a crystal ball, a tarot deck, a shaker of salt, and a few talismans and such.

They both expected some kind of mumbo jumbo about holding hands or closing their eyes. Instead, Louise spoke plainly, “Now, normally, I do a whole shtick, trying to get people to open up. But you guys don’t need the shtick. What you need is to listen to Marco.”

“How did he tell you his name? Can you hear what he says?”

“Well, my whole damn life, I’ve been able to talk to the dead. It’s kind of my thing. Runs in the family. Some of us can actually do something helpful like helping them find the light, but me? No. I can only listen. Trust me, it isn’t fun, it isn’t inspiring. It’s just a pain in the ass. But it’s nice to think I might be able to use my pain in the ass to help out a nice young couple with their pain in the ass. Especially since you guys look like you’re still wet behind the ears, and you sure won’t know what to do on your own.”

Having said all of that, she sighed and grew quiet. James looked a little insulted and like he wanted to argue, but Jenny held his hand, and James calmed himself.

“So, what are you going to do?” Jenny looked at Louise, eyebrows furrowed in worry.

“I won’t do squat here. You have to be the ones to do anything. But I can tell you what Marco is yelling about, and you guys can come up with the big ideas.”

Louise settled in, and started ticking things off on her fingers, like she was trying to remember lots of details on a laundry list of things.

“Well, first, he yelled at me about the know-nothing kids that have his cart now, and how you’re feeding people trash as if it was hot dogs. Next, he proceeded to tell me a long and boring story about coming over from Italy as a child, and how his father and mother had lived in poverty for fifteen years, saving every penny.” She rolled her eyes. “Just be glad I’m giving you the highlights. Marco went on and on. Like how all the kids had to work, and he’d never gone to school. He’d saved every penny helping his parents. He never learned math, or read a single word, but his parents had helped him save up all the money needed to buy his hot dog cart, and he’d learned how to make hot dogs, sell hot dogs, and work the till. Blah blah blah. One day he’d sold a hot dog to the prettiest girl in the world, and then they got married, had kids, and made enough money with his hot dog cart to help his kids make it all the way through college. And he’d worked his cart until the day he’d died, selling hot dogs to feed the good plain folk of this city.”

Louise sat back. “That’s about it.”

“What the heck are we supposed to do with that?” James said, flustered. He looked over at Jenny, “What the heck?”

Jenny shrugged and rubbed her eyebrow, “Look, I admire that kind of work ethic. Why is he trying to stop us from doing the same thing?”

Louise grunted loudly, “You don’t get it. He was proud of selling hot dogs. You guys are basically freaking him out with the whole vegan thing.”

“Makes sense,” Jenny said. “He’s not the first person to bitch me out for wanting to eat sustainably and healthfully. You’d think we were the ones doing harm the way some people freak out.”

“Oh man,” James ran his fingers through his hair, and looked over at Jenny, “What should we do?”

Louise looked at both of them, “You could just start selling hot dogs, right? Make enough money to sell the cart, and start over?”

James and Jenny answered in unison. “No.”

“Well, then you shouldn’t have bought a haunted hot dog cart. ‘Cause you’re never getting away with selling green stuff in that cart. ”

Jenny said, “Well, we’ll have to come up with another answer.”

James and Jenny thanked Louise for her help, and got on their way. They stopped for coconut milk green tea  lattes on the way home, and then pow-wowed for the rest of the day and late into the night. The day after that, the cart stayed in the garage, and they did some internet research, ordered new food sent their way, and got busy making new signage. At this point, they were way, way way out of money. They scraped together as much money as they could find, even checking the couch cushions before they found enough to order the new decals, but they both went to sleep happy.

When they woke up the next day, James overhauled the cart, while Jenny prepped the food. The new decals arrived – a great big picture of a hot dog, with ketchup and relish on it. Another of a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut on it. James smoothed them onto the surface of the cart, and they stuck fast.

Another decal with no photos said simply:

TWO JAYS (VEGAN) HOT DOG STAND

OUR RULES ARE WEIRD – SO READ THIS ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

THERE IS ZERO MEAT IN OUR VEGAN HOT DOGS, AND ALL ITEMS IN THIS CART ARE ORGANIC, NON-GMO, SUSTAINABLE  AND COMPLETELY FREE OF MEAT OR DAIRY. ORDER EVERYTHING AS IF THESE HOT DOGS WERE NOT VEGAN. ALL ORDERS MUST BE PLACED WITHOUT MENTION OF BEING VEGGIE, GREEN, VEGAN or MEATLESS. WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE IF YOU BREAK THIS RULE, EVEN IN SPIRIT. THANK YOU!

The cart was filled with vegan hot dogs swimming in water, vegan hot dog buns, and all plastic was actually biodegradable, such as the cellulose forks and knives. Not a single thing in their cart was toxic in any way. Every part of their operation was sustainable. They were so proud.

The first day out on the corner, they were understandably nervous. But, no one’s food was thrown, the cart stayed silent, and Marco was obviously sure he’d won. Two Jays said nothing, and if people asked, they simply pointed at the sign, or handed over a detailed flyer that answered every question that they could come up with.

There were a few minor incidents, but if James acted offended when someone ordered anything vegan, the cart didn’t throw a fit. After a few days, they settled into the new routine. Eventually, they developed regulars, and everyone who came by seemed to already know about Two Jays’ weird rule.

The buzz from their quirky rule created huge crowds. A vegan magazine called it a brave attempt to normalize Vegan foods, and a bold political statement. This brought lots of supporters who all followed the rule in solidarity. James didn’t bother explaining.

A few weeks later, they needed four tables.  Jenny started bringing along her laptop so she could manage the social media buzz while helping the customers, and so they grew their business.

Three months after that, Jenny informed James over the breakfast table that they had the money to retire the hot dog stand and get a truck.

“What if we don’t?” James leaned across the table to kiss his wife on the nose.

“Don’t what?” Jenny answered.

“It feels sad to make Marco live in a dark garage.”

“Aww. That sounds awful. You’re right… but… well, how else can we manage it?”

They put out a strange ad for someone “not afraid of ghosts” and ended up hiring a guy named Mick to run the stand, with plenty of warnings that it was haunted, but it never acted up for Mick, and he honestly thought the bosses were probably just a little eccentric. It didn’t help that Louise’s free food was extended to a lifetime supply, and he was ordered to occasionally recommend her services. At that point, he decided they were definitely a little cuckoo. But they were nice people, so he stayed. Mick had two little kids under the age of five, and the cart seemed to brighten up some when the girls were there playing.

In present day, Two Jays’ has twelve carts and six trucks in three cities and offers more than 40 menu items. Three of the carts continue to only offer hot dogs. James and Jenny continue to always work the same truck together, and make all the rules together.

Two Jays is known far and wide because, to this day, no one is allowed to say the word ‘vegan’ when ordering.

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