Seraphina Ramon will stop at nothing to find out the truth about why her sister Eff is in a coma after a very suspicious "accident." Even if it means infiltrating the last place Seraphina knows Eff was alive: a once-abandoned amusement park now populated by a community of cultists.
Follow Seraphina through the mouth of the Goblin: To the left, a wolf-themed roller coaster rests on the blackened earth, curled up like a dead snake. To the right, an animatronic Humpty Dumpty falls off a concrete castle and shatters on the ground, only to reform itself moments later. Up ahead, cultists giggle as they meditate in a hall of mirrors. This is the last place in the world Seraphina wants to be, but the best way to investigate this bizarre cult, is to join them.
Release date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: Meerkat Press
Print pages: 187
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The Merry Dredgers
Jeremy C. Shipp
When I first started working as a princess, I felt a little self-conscious peeking through a gap in the fence into a client’s yard. Nowadays, it comes as second nature. Through a knothole, I see a French bulldog in a polka-dot bowtie, squirming on his back and sunning his round, speckled belly. I also see a rustic-looking shed with a massive window. In the window, I see the severed heads of bobcats and boars and black bears. I wonder for a moment if the hunter who owns this shed only kills animals that start with the letter b. No, there’s a sheep’s head right there. Ah, but is it a bighorn sheep?
My attention shifts away from the shed because a little girl appears with glittery stickers covering her arms like tattoo sleeves. She tickles the armpits of the French bulldog for a while, and then she lies down beside him on the well-manicured lawn. A boy with a buzzcut appears and drops a balloon onto the girl’s stomach.
The taxidermy shed gives me Norman Bates vibes, but at least there are actual children at this children’s party. That isn’t always the case. Now and again, guys will book you for a bachelor party, or worse. I haven’t experienced this myself, but I visit the princess forums and I read the stories.
Now that I’m feeling somewhat safe, I make my way to the front of the house where I make my grand entrance. Sometimes a parent will speak with me one-on-one before leading me to the heart of the party, but most of the time I’m greeted at the door by a horde of wide-eyed, yipping children. This time around, three girls spill out of the front entrance before I can even ring the doorbell.
Children soon surround me on the front porch, and I sing the Greeting Song. Or croak is more accurate, as this is my seventh party this week and I’m losing my voice. To those children who come close enough, I gently tap them on the head with my magic wand.
After I finish singing, a young mother shakes my hand and leaves behind a smear of frosting on my glove. She tells me her name, although her voice is too soft for me to hear it, and she leads me into the house to the birthday girl, who also politely shakes my hand. While I sing the girl the Birthday Princess Song, she stares down at an astronaut doll bent in strange angles on the hardwood floor. Even when I present her with a magic wand of her very own, she takes it without looking at me and doesn’t say a word. I don’t mind.
I sing a couple more songs and teach the children to do the fairy tale shuffle.
Eventually, the birthday girl musters up enough courage to approach me and say, “Do you want to see my dog?”
“Oh yes,” I say, in the sickly-sweet manner that feels almost normal to me at this point. “I do so love animals.”
There aren’t any songs in the princess guidebook that are meant for pets, but I made one up about a year ago. Through song, I tell the French bulldog that his heart is full of gold and that his nose is very cold. I won’t be winning any Grammys for my lyrics, I know, but the kids gobble this ditty up.
One of the good things about princess work, compared to my other jobs, is that time almost always passes swiftly. One minute I’m painting a golden tiara onto a girl’s chubby face, and the next, I’m packing my rainbow duffle bag to head out.
Before I leave the yard, the girl with stickers covering her arms hops toward me. “Are you a real princess?” she says.
“What do you think?” I say, because according to the guidebook, a princess can’t answer a question about her true identity with the truth, or with a lie.
The girl stares at me with her head tilted far to the side. After a few moments of scrupulous inspection, she peels a tiger sticker off her arm and holds the object out to me. “You can have this, if you want.”
“Thank you ever so much.”
I take the sticker, and the girl waits silently until I press the gift onto my arm. Then she dashes away.
On my way back to the house, I have to pass by the taxidermy shed. I see a bison and bunnies and what might be a band-tailed pigeon. I see the open-mouthed face of a black bear, forever roaring in agony or anger, or some combination of the two. I wonder why the hunter only keeps the heads, and what he does with the bodies. Does he pile the headless corpses in a pickup truck and dump them gracelessly in a landfill? Does he sell the carcasses to some eccentric artist who attaches mannequin heads to the torsos and displays them in his living room?
The buzzcut kid stands near the shed with a stone in his hand that looks much too large for him to lift, but somehow he’s managing the feat. He tosses the stone at the glass, and I hold my breath. Thankfully, the stone turns out to be made of foam or some other harmless material.
I keep walking.
Back inside the house, I find the young mother whispering to someone on her phone. She meets my eyes and gives me an apologetic look, and then she faces the wall and continues whispering.
“You’re a talented singer,” says a man standing to my side. He towers over me, wearing a Taxi Driver t-shirt. Throughout this afternoon, I caught this guy gaping at me on multiple occasions.
“Thank you,” I say, in a voice still slightly princess-like. There are children within earshot, and I don’t want to shatter the illusion.
“You have a lot of potential, and I’m not just saying that.” He sits on the arm of a couch and crosses his arms over his chest. “If you’ve ever considered trying out for one of those singing competition shows, I could help you with that. I know people. I can help you skip all the initial auditions and fast-track you through the process. If you want to leave me your number, we can talk more about this later. What do you think?”
“That sounds great, dad twice my age with a magician’s goatee. Thank you for hitting on me at a children’s birthday party inside a stranger’s house. There’s nothing I love more.” That’s what I want to say, but princesses are incapable of such sarcasm.
“Thanks,” I say. “But I’m not interested.”
“We wouldn’t have to talk about singing. People say I’m a talented conversationalist.”
“I’m not interested,” I say, quietly, in my own voice.
I turn around and approach the birthday girl’s mother. Behind me, the goatee guy mumbles something that sounds like, “Somebody’s moody.”
Ultimately, waiting for the young mother to finish her phone call proves fruitless. She
doesn’t give me a tip. Not even a bad one. She probably doesn’t know how little I’m being paid, but maybe I’m giving her too much credit.
On the drive home, my scrap heap of a sedan makes a noise like a dying pig. I don’t have the cash or credit or energy to deal with a shrieking vehicle right now, so I turn up the volume of my podcast and try to drown out the cacophony. It doesn’t really work.
Eventually I turn off the podcast, because I’m not paying enough attention. I’m thinking about everything I want to do tonight. There’s always so much I want to do after work. But as the drive continues and the fairy tale fades, my adrenaline rush becomes an adrenaline walk, which will become an adrenaline crawl into bed. As soon as I step out of my car, I suddenly feel the full force of my exhaustion.
In my head, I can hear my friend Alvin chastising me for giving so much of myself to these silly parties. I’m wasting my talent, he says. Some casting director out there will see me for the star I am, if I just get back to the grind. Alvin’s a sweet person, as far as great big liars go. How long has it been since I spoke with Alvin outside of my own head? I should call him tonight. Then again, I’m sure he’s busy living a real, substantial life. He doesn’t need me grumbling about my existence for thirty minutes straight.
Before heading up to my apartment, I check my mail. I pull out six postcards, each one depicting a Humpty Dumpty statue with a crack in his skull. His grin looks sadistic. The other sides of the postcards are jam-packed with microscopic scribbles that are nigh indecipherable. Even without checking for a signature, I can tell these missives are from Eff. She always did have the handwriting of a rabid mouse.
Why she sent me six postcards instead of her usual rambling phone text, I have no clue. There’s a chance she’ll give me some explanation in her messages, and then again, she might not. My sister can be inexplicable at times.
In my apartment, I dismantle my gown and purge my face of the ghost-white foundation and enormous purple eyelids. Transformed into a regular human being once again, I pour myself some diet soda and a splash or four of pink gin. I know it sounds weird, but try it. You’ll see.
Right as I sink my aching bones into the ugliest, comfiest couch on the planet, Heracles meows at me from across the room.
“You already have food in your dish,” I say. “I can see it from here.”
He meows again.
I’m a pushover, so even before taking a sip of my drink, I get up and open a small can of cat food and plop the contents onto the not-quite-as-fresh blob of food.
“Is that better?” I say.
Heracles eats, and I pet the top of his head with a forefinger before returning to the couch.
I sip my drink and place the postcards Humpty-down on the coffee table and study the messages. Apparently, the cards come together to form one long letter, because only one missive starts with Dear Phina, and only one ends with Love, Eff.
I take another sip and squint and begin to read.
First of all, I want you to know that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Picture me grinning like a jack-o’-lantern as you read through the rest of this. Picture me with a candle inside my heart, warming me from within, never burning out. That’s how I feel these days. So don’t worry about me, no matter what pessimistic ideas come to your mind in the next few minutes.
Anyway, I’m writing to you primarily because I want to catch up, but I also need a little help. I should probably start by telling you that a few months ago I joined a really cool community. I know when I say the word community, you’re automatically going to think the word cult. I know you can’t help yourself. I also know that when I assure you I’m not in a cult, you’re going to think, “That’s exactly what someone in a cult would say.” But really, Phina, this place is more of a mind and body retreat than anything else. We’re all about self-actualization and meditation and shit like that. I can already imagine the multipage rant you’re planning on sending me about why I’m definitely in a cult and I’m being brainwashed, so let me help ease—
The first postcard ends abruptly at this point. Since Eff didn’t take the time to indicate the order of the cards, I have to search through them all and guess which one comes next. Ah, this one seems right.
—some of your concerns before you scream them at me. One: no one here has asked me for money. Not the owner of the retreat, not the followers. Nobody. Honestly, these are the least greedy people I’ve ever come across. Two: I’m not being exploited, in any sense of the word. The leader of the retreat isn’t some sex-crazed maniac who wants me as his fourteenth wife. Three: no one is keeping me from returning to the big wide world, and I can do so whenever I feel like it. You might think it’s strange that I’m writing to you on postcards instead of texting, but none of us use phones or computers here. Before you ask: no one forced me to get rid of my phone. I wanted to break my addiction, for my own sake. We do have an emergency landl
ine, so it’s not like we can’t call a plumber if the pipes burst. We’re not super isolated. I also thought writing you letters would be fun. Isn’t this fun? Three: wait, I already wrote three. Damn it. Now I can’t remember what other points I wanted to make here, but maybe I’ll think of them later. Even after all my reassurances, I’m sure you’re still worried as hell about me, and I guess I appreciate that. You’re a good sister. Hopefully I’ve at least—
The postcard ends here.
I find the next one.
—alleviated your fears a fraction of an inch. Anyway, like I mentioned earlier, I do have a small favor to ask of you. I’m sure your anxiety is through the roof right now, so remember to picture me with my jack-o’-lantern face and my cinnamon candle heart. I’m fine. I’m better than fine. Recently though I told a few of my friends here about George the Demon. I told them about what George did to me. For the most part, everyone here reacted very supportively. These are nice people, Phina. There is one guy, though, who keeps joking about how he wants to find George and break his legs or throw him down a well or stuff like that. I’m ninety-five percent sure that he’s joking, but then again, guys who joke like this aren’t always joking. The joking in itself didn’t worry me too much until I started having some disturbing visions about George. I know you’re the Scully to my Mulder, and you don’t believe in psychic powers or visions or shit. I don’t know if you’re capable of doing so, but I want—
I grab the next postcard.
—you to attempt to turn off your preconceived notions about reality for a second and open your mind to the possibility that psychic phenomena are a natural part of our world. Did you do it? You probably didn’t. Whether you believe me or not, I’ve always been a little bit psychic. I don’t know if you remember, but Auntie Gloria thought you and me both had links to otherworldly forces, and she knew what she was talking about. She could tell when the phone was about to ring and when someone was coming to the door. You can’t deny that we both dreamed about losing dad before anyone even knew he was sick. I’ve never taken my powers too seriously until I started living at the retreat. We cultivate an atmosphere of self-discovery here. We spend time alone, meditating, gazing into our own souls. It’s difficult to explain with words. Honestly, I’ve always been a little afraid of that part of myself that sees beyond normal perceptions. Here, though, that part of me feels like it’s waking up. And I like it, most of the time. I’m learning to control it. I’m learning that this mystical aspect of myself is as normal as my jack-o’-la
ntern smile or my candle heart. I know you don’t believe any of this but I—
I fumble for the next postcard.
—hope you can be happy for me, nevertheless. I’m finally starting to feel like the real Eff. It’s scary. And exhilarating. I sit in a dark room, alone, and I’m inundated with the citrusy scent of peonies and the crackling of a campfire and the feeling of sticking your hand in a barrel of dried beans and so much beautiful shit like that. This is how I experience my gift most of the time. Every once in a while though, I see George with shards of glass in his face and part of his bone sticking out of his arm. I feel his terror like it’s my own. My main problem is that I don’t know what these images and feelings mean. Am I seeing something that’s already happened, or will happen, or might? What I’m afraid of is that my friend who keeps joking about hurting George actually went through with it. He left the community for a few days recently, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m probably worrying over nothing. Nevertheless, I was wondering if you could check on the Demon for me? Make sure he’s—
Here’s the next one.
—alive and breathing? He was always such a damn luddite, so you might have to go check up on him in person. I’m eighty percent sure that these visions are nothing to worry about. Maybe George is going to die forty years from now, and that’s what I’m experiencing. Maybe part of me needs to experience his passing so that he can stop living like some almighty demigod inside my head. He’s a pathetic mortal, just like the rest of us. That’s one theory anyway. Whatever the case may be, it would do me a world of good if you could see how George is doing. I would be forever in your debt, although I suppose I already am. Anyway, how have you been? Are you still a princess?
For I-don’t-know-how-many seconds, I stare at Eff’s signature, as if I can scry some secret meaning from the way she signed her name. I can’t.
I stack the postcards in order and place them in the drawer of the coffee table, where I keep all the important bills and papers I need to deal with posthaste. Leaning back on the couch again, I notice Heracles curled up on the threadbare cushion beside me. He rolls onto his back and when I pet his belly, he gently grabs hold of me with his claws and gnaws on my hand.
“Let go, Hare,” I say.
What I need to do, first and foremost, is to think carefully about everything Eff told me. I wish I could do this now, but I’m the sort of tired that even caffeine can’t fix. My sister wants me to picture her as some jubilant pum
pkin. Well, picture me as a popped party balloon. Picture me as a stone made of foam, incapable of smashing a single window. That’s the sort of tired I am.
I get into bed, because the sooner I sleep, the sooner I can figure out where to go from here. Right now, all I know for sure is that my sister definitely joined a cult, and I need to find a way to save her.
The next morning is a hectic phantasmagoria of screams and brightly colored vomit and two dozen children dressed as ghosts. When I first get to the party, I ask the parents if they want me to act like a princess or the ghost of a princess, and the dad says earnestly, “What’s the difference?” And I don’t have a good answer to that question. Toward the end of the party, the birthday boy asks me how I died. The princess guidebook doesn’t specify how to answer such a question, so I tell him I died of old age.
“Are you sure you weren’t eaten by a dragon?” he says.
“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “It was a dragon. I forgot.”
In all the chaos of the morning, I don’t have much time to think about Eff and her letter. When I do think about my sister, I mostly imagine her wearing sunset-colored robes or an all-black tracksuit with black-and-white sneakers. I imagine her sitting cross-legged in a damp, dark basement, wearing a pink velvet dress with puffed sleeves, with images of George’s broken body whorling above her head.
Between my first party of the day and my second, I have a few minutes to sit in my car and use my phone to investigate the return address Eff included on one of the postcards. The Post Office box is located about three hours northwest of here in the meager city of Lonbloom. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any cults located in the city itself. There is a fundamentalist Christian community two hours from Lonbloom, but there’s no way Eff would go for that after everything our mother put us through. Also, didn’t Eff mention meditation in her letter? Wouldn’t Christian cultists find the whole concept of meditation to be diabolical? Just in case I’m wrong about all this, I write down the name of the cult in my note app.
The alarm clock on my phone meows at me, so I touch up my makeup using the rearview mirror, and then I ascend an impossibly steep flight of steps to party number two.
I woke up this morning calm and collected and only a little sick to my stomach. Now though, my anxiety is a tangled ball of barbed wire writhing in my torso. During those rare moments when no one’s paying any attention to me, I stare at a blooming jacaranda tree in the client’s yard. I think about the girl with sticker arms whispering into the French bulldog’s ear and then using a finger to draw a cross over his ribs. I think about this morning, when I placed my long satin gloves on the couch and Heracles grabbed one in his mouth and dashed away. These thoughts do calm me down, slightly.
Toward the end of the party, I’m painting scales and fangs onto a pigtailed girl’s face, and a memory, or a set of memories really, floats to the surface of my consciousness. I remember standing outside the library with Eff, looking at the raptorial grotesque carved into one of the pillars. The carving glared at us with his mouth agape, and we slowly slid our hands inside. Eff liked to tell me that one day when we least expected it the mouth would bite down. I hated the game, really, but I never refused to play.
“Do I look scary?” the little girl says, after I’m done painting her face.
“Oh yes,” I say. “You are wonderfully terrifying indeed.”
Satisfied, the girl walks away and hisses at no one in particular.
After the party, the father of the birthday girl smiles conspiratorially while handing me a folded-up ten-dollar tip. He tells me to look out for my wicked stepmother. Since he says this in a goofy, non-creepy way, I tell him, “I always do.”
Back in my rust bucket, I pick up a veggie burger and some fried mushrooms from a drive-through and eat in the parking lot. I only have one more party scheduled for today, so I check what jobs are available in the meantime on my pet sitting app. While I’m accepting assignments, an enormous glob of ketchup dives onto my dress. But it doesn’t really
matter. When you’re around children as often as I am, getting your gown dirty is an inevitability. It’s your destiny. I attack the stain with a gossamer-thin napkin and then put the matter out of my mind.
By force of habit, I unpause the podcast on my phone. However, I quickly realize that I’m in no mood to hear about a serial killer who utilizes his victims’ hair and eyelashes when creating ball-jointed porcelain dolls.
In silence, I probe deeper into the fundamentalist Christian cult, and I imagine Eff wearing a pastel prairie dress that reaches down to her ankles. According to the website I’m looking at, the women are required to pray for two hours every morning while sitting under a fig tree. The men beat their children with sticks if they misbehave. There’s no mention of meditation or psychic powers or self-actualization. I’m definitely meandering in the wrong direction, so where do I go from here?
I sigh and turn away from my phone. Outside my window, a man sitting on a circular tree bench raises one finger and the pit-bull–lab beside him barks. When the man raises two fingers, the dog barks twice. The guy notices me looking, stands up and walks the couple steps over to my car. I roll down my window.
“Do you have a spare coin or two?” he says.
I give him two dollars, and the man pretends to tip a hat at me. He’s not actually wearing one.
“I like your dog,” I say.
“Say thank you to the nice woman,” the man says.
The dog barks, once, and then the two of them return to their bench. After the man holds up three fingers, the dog barks four times. Close. To be honest, I could keep watching this all day, but I have things to do. Snakes to feed. A sister to save.
I give the man a little wave, and he returns my gesture with a deep bow. Maybe because I’m still dressed like a cartoon princess, but who knows, really?
The drive to the first pet owner’s house is more than a little stressful, thanks to the worries flurrying in my mind, as well as a near-collision with a swerving Tacoma. On the drive, I decide that for my next course of action, I should write Eff a letter. I need to convince the most stubborn person this side of the Mississippi to somehow abandon her new grinning-like-a-jack-o’-lantern life.
In my client’s attic, I dangle a wriggling mouse by the tail and transport him from a cheerless, stark cage to a luxurious vivarium packed with cork bark tubes and grapewood branches and bushy fern plants.
Soon, Mrs. Checkers the kingsnake glides out of her hiding spot. She whips at the air with a forked, burgundy-colored tongue.
These days, most snake owners feed their pets thawed or freshly killed rodents. But according to the note on my phone, Mrs. Checkers refuses to eat anything that she doesn’t kill herself. The note also says that the p
roblem with live mice is that sometimes they fight back. So if I see the mouse biting or clawing at the snake, I’m supposed to intervene. Intervene how exactly, I have no idea. The note doesn’t specify.
Thankfully, Mrs. Checkers incapacitates the mouse with her first strike and then strangles him without any complications. The mouse’s tail stops twitching.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
I imagine a Lilliputian version of Eff sitting cross-legged in the vivarium, her eyes closed in meditation.
While feeding the other reptiles and amphibians in the attic, I painstakingly compose half a dozen letters to Eff in my mind. Each one is less impressive than the last. I try to scare her. I try to touch her heart. I try to appeal to her more rational angels. As I’m dumping frozen cubes of bloodworms into an axolotl tank, a thought crosses my mind. The thought is so ludicrous that I snort out loud. I can’t be serious.
But before I know it, I’m parking near the Demon’s colonial-style house, under a purple orchid tree. The shadow of the plant doesn’t hide my car, but I feel irrationally safer nonetheless. I put on my colossal aviator sunglasses and slouch down in my seat as far as possible. As I search the myriad windows for any signs of life, I realize that I’m holding my breath. I need to calm down. Even if the Demon spots me, he probably won’t recognize me, what with my sunglasses and my princess makeup and my bone-white wig. Right? A droplet of cold sweat runs down my back.
For fifteen minutes or so, I surveil the house in complete silence, but then I get bored. I put in my earbuds. I’m still not in the mood to hear about a serial killer who filled his porcelain dolls with dehydrated chicken gizzards, so I switch to a Flaming Lips playlist.
If only George didn’t hate computers, I could stalk him online like a normal person, and find out everything I need to know. As it is, I’m stuck here staring pointlessly at an empty house. Maybe I should search the mailbox. At the very least, I could verify that George still lives here. Maybe I should talk to the neighbors. These are intriguing ideas indeed, but I’m too much of a coward to exit the car.
All of a sudden, the Demon barrels toward my driver’s side window. At least, that’s what I think I’m seeing for a split second. Instead, a middle-aged woman in a Gucci tracksuit jogs by my car, pushing a grinning Pomeranian in one of those three-wheeled exercise strollers.
“Calm down,” I say.
I’m not sure how long a reasonable person would sit here twiddling her thumbs, waiting for something to happen, but I likely passed that threshold a while back now. I’m a couple more negative thoughts away from gi
ving up on this whole operation when a BMW convertible rolls slowly into the driveway.
George steps out of the passenger seat, with casts on his left arm and his right leg. A deep-looking cut stretches from the bridge of his nose to below his ear. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I can’t believe my luck.
A young woman with doe eyes like Eff hands George a crutch, and then he turns and looks directly at my car. I almost duck down in my seat, but I don’t want to call any extra attention to myself, do I? After a second, George turns away from me and points at the back of his convertible. The young woman quickly pops the trunk.
I’m still so shocked by the sight of George that for a while I don’t move a muscle. Thankfully, I remember my mission and manage to snap a quick photo of George before he and his girlfriend enter the house.
I can’t get over the fact that Eff was right. I’m sure her psychic visions are nonsense, but maybe that cultist friend of hers actually attacked George. I was almost positive that Eff was wrong about her suspicions, but I’m glad I checked. Now when I write Eff a letter, I can include this photo. Maybe the image of George’s sliced up face will be enough to scare her away from her new friends.
“I should find out more,” I say out loud, my voice cracking.
But I don’t move, because a face-to-face conversation with the Demon is the last thing in the world I want to do. Maybe there’s something else I can try.
As soon as I step out of my car, I feel like I need to throw up. My anxiety’s now an open-mouthed face of a black bear, forever roaring in fear.
I take a deep breath. What I need is to think of all this as a performance. I need to picture myself as a noir detective, dressed in a tan overcoat and a wide-brim fedora worn at an angle.
I glance over at George’s house. I see two silhouettes in the living room where the curtains are drawn. They won’t see me. I repeat the sentence over and over to myself, to make it true. They won’t see me. They won’t see me.
I walk away from the safety of my car and the purple orchid tree.
Swiftly and clumsily, I make my way down the cobblestone path next door to George, lined with garden gnomes and stone hedgehogs. On the front porch, a dozen metal frogs sit at the edge of the deck, dangling fishing lines over the side.
When I knock, an elderly woman answers the front door. She gives me one of those looks that says she didn’t expect a woman in a full-length satin gown with long white gloves to materialize at her door.
“Can I help you?” the woman says.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m a singing telegram. I’m here for George Davenport.” I don’t know if singing telegrams still exist anywhere in the world, but this is the best I can come up with on the fly.
Signs of relief trans
form the woman’s face. “Oh, George is our neighbor. You’re going to want the tall house right over there.”
“Oops,” I say. “Sorry to bother you.”
The woman waves off the thought. “It’s no bother at all.”
“I . . . the woman who hired me told me about what happened to George,” I say, trying to saturate my tone with congeniality. “It’s a shame.” Why a singing telegram would be privy to such information, I have no idea. I’m doing my best here.
“Yes,” the woman says. “Poor George. How someone could do that to another person, I’ll never know.”
“Yeah,” I say. I need to probe her for more information, but I’m not sure what to say next. I’m panicking, so all I manage is to thank her and say goodbye.
On my way to the next house over, I push away the freaked out, bungling Seraphina. That’s not me anymore. Picture me with gum rubber shoes and a 38 Smith and Wesson Special in a leather shoulder holster. My only weakness is femme fatales with legs for days and wide, crooked smiles.
After I press the doorbell, a young woman answers wearing black yoga pants and an oversized tank top. A child screams a song about tuna somewhere behind her.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m a friend of George Davenport, your neighbor.”
A look of fear, and possibly pity, transforms her face for a moment. There’s a chance that she’s caught a glimpse of the Demon behind George’s mask.
“No, I’m lying,” I say. “I’m not his friend. I know what kind of person he is. He used to date my sister, and it’s important that I find out some information about him. I could explain to you why I need this information, but it’s a whole big thing, and you don’t have time for a long story, I’m guessing. Is there any way you could help me with this? I just have a few questions.”
The young woman stares at the ketchup stain on my dress. As soon as she notices me noticing her, she turns her attention to my face.
“Okay,” she says, not unkindly. “What do you want to know?”
“Do you know what happened to him? George?”
The woman glances over in the direction of the Demon’s house. “It was a hit-and-run. It happened about a week and a half ago. I’m not sure where.”
“Did they catch the person who did it?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
From somewhere inside the house, the child says, “Mom! I’m turning into a frog!”
I can feel myself panicking again. My time’s running out here, and I’m not sure what else to ask.
“I . . . did you hear anything about the car? The one that hit him?”
“George was hit from behind,” the woman says, casually, as if she’s commenting on the weather. “According to his girlfriend, he didn’t see anything. She’s the one who told me all this.”
The child now materializes at his mother’s side, wearing a cracked, plastic frog mask.
“Are you a princess?” the child says.
“Sometimes,” I say.
“I’d better go,” the mother says. “Good luck with helping your sister.”
“Thank you,” I say. This is the longest conversation I’ve had with someone using my real voice in who-knows-how long, and I feel the pathetic urge to keep talking. Part of me wants to sit at this stranger’s cluttered dining table and drink Diet Coke or boxed apple juice or whatever she has on hand and tell her everything I know about Eff and the cult.
As I’m heading back to my car, I hear a door opening in the direction of the Demon’s house. I tell myself that I’m probably being paranoid, but when I turn my head, I see the young woman with doe eyes moving hurriedly in my direction. Then I notice George standing in the doorway with a tiny grin on his face. I guess he does recognize me, and he’s commanded his girlfriend to do what exactly?
I speed-walk to my car, stumbling once on nothing in particular. I manage to defy the laws of physics and not fall on my face. As I fumble with my keys, the woman says, “Excuse me.” She sounds close. She sounds like she could reach out and touch my back if she wanted to.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I have an appointment and I’m in a rush.”
Only after I’m in my car with the door locked do I glance over at the girl. She’s standing a few feet away, with her arms crossed over her four-hundred-dollar blouse. She gives me an exasperated look, which hurts my feelings more than it should.
I drive away, slowly, as if I don’t have a care in the world. I don’t look back at George, but his small venomous smile invades my thoughts regardless. That poor girl. I pray for her, despite the fact that I don’t believe in God. I pray that the doe-eyed girl is friends with the young mother two houses down. I pray that someday soon she’ll escape the nightmarish maze she doesn’t even know she’s trapped within.
As I head to my next job, I compose another letter in my head. This one feels right on the money. I tell Eff about the hit-and-run, and how her cult friend could be responsible, for all we know. I tell her that she means the world and a bean to me, which is something our father used to say. I didn’t think to ask him what “world and a bean” means exactly until after he was gone. I asked Aunt Gloria what it meant once, but
she didn’t know. In my imagination, Eff sits cross-legged in a damp, dark basement, reading my letter. Once she finishes, she snickers a little through her nose and says, “Oh Phina.” Even in my imagination, I can’t change her mind.
Then I picture a black-and-white version of myself sitting at a massive desk in front of venetian blinds and a sign etched into the glass of the door that says Seraphina Ramon: Princess Detective Agency. I’ve never lost a case. What do I have to worry about? I’ll convince Eff somehow. Suddenly, the whole exercise feels a bit too silly, and my noir persona drains out of me, through the floor of my car, into a pothole. My confidence plummets downward, toward the center of the earth.
The one thing keeping me from pulling over and ugly-crying uncontrollably is that Eff is tough as hell. When she found herself trapped in George’s brambly maze, she trudged her way through the twists and turns, all the way to the exit. After our father died, I would come home from school and lie in bed, imagining my room like a giant coffin. I pretended that giant earthworms wriggled in circles around my walls. Sometimes Eff ventured into my grave and asked me to play, and I pinched her arm. And when she left my room, I pinched myself. Eff didn’t give up though, and eventually, after who-knows-how-many-weeks, I started playing again. Eff dragged me to the tiny park by our apartment complex after school. In her spaceship, she flew me to worlds populated by talking hedgehogs and affable pirates. We blew up evil planets made of metal and bones. We rescued cosmic orphans from the clutches of the Nothing Man, who ate shadows for breakfast and who, with a touch, could make you lose your sense of taste or smell. We built these worlds together. Eff called me captain, even though she made most of the decisions. Thanks to these adventures, sometimes I didn’t think about our father’s death for hours at a time. When we were teenagers, Eff was the only one who stood up to our mother. Even after a slap to the face or a remote thrown at her head, Eff wouldn’t back down. She was the first one to say goodbye to our mother forever, when Eff was old enough to survive on her own.
The point is, if someone can escape some bizarre cult, it’s Eff. She’s going to be fine. I repeat the thought over and over and over, and eventually I almost believe it.
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