The Ex-Conference Room
Margaret and Allison head into the conference room, which is so rarely used that Gustav took it upon himself to transform it into the office lounge. He tore out (literally, with his thuggish, brutal hands) the projection system built into the wall and fashioned a bar out of it, complete with a little black and white monitor for him to watch Australian pornography during his downtime. He punched out the fluorescent lights and replaced them with Chinese paper lanterns. He chainsaw’d the conference table into five little bar tables, installed a few booths, and threw a Persian rug on the floor. A couple months ago he put in a purchase order for a spherical cage in which a nude woman could writhe, but so far it hasn’t been approved.
Margaret turns on the lanterns, lights candles at the tables, puts a record on (something ancient that sounds to Allison like an orchestra tuning up at the bottom of a well), turns off the porn, and pours two tumblers of something called Expert Whiskey. Allison slumps in the far booth, never more tired in her life.
Margaret hands her the drink, sits down, studies her for a moment. “We can do this another time,” she says.
“Let’s get it over with,” Allison says.
“This is for you. This is for us. There needs to be an acknowledgment.” She holds up her glass expectantly.
Allison realizes she’s holding something in her chest and lets out a long, quiet breath. She clinks Margaret’s glass and they both down their drinks in a single swallow.
Three people stride into the room, two men and a woman, each wearing a dark suit. Margaret waves them over, tilts a head toward Allison and says: “This is Allison Hull.”
They look her over. Nobody says anything for a moment. Then the bigger guy says: “Looks just like him.”
“That one’s Hogwild,” Margaret says. “That one’s Voletta Black. And that one’s Capital Sam.”
“You’re the couriers?” Allison asks.
“There’s a fourth,” Margaret says, “but we’re not sure where she is at the moment.”
“Great,” Allison says. “And you’re all dead, too?”
“I was killed in a very spectacular fashion,” Capital Sam says.
“Each one gave up their lives and their names for this job,” Margaret says.
“Oh, they got to pick their names?” Allison asks. “That explains it.”
“Everyone, sit, drink,” Margaret says. “Tell Allison a little bit about your terrible selves.”
Emperor P’eng reaches for his cup and notices it shuddering on its saucer. He looks up and sees a great black car (1979 Gorgon, assembled from the pieces of twelve other cars) smashing through the front windows of his teahouse. There’s an horrific squeal. Tables and china burst into stardust. Hogwild leaps from the driver’s seat and is immediately beset by P’eng’s elite 神龍 (god dragon) guard. He drops into the morning sloth stance and two flunkies knock each other out. He breaks the third’s knee and the fourth’s jaw. The fifth gets in a nice kidney punch and it stings, no denying it, throws him off his game a li—and now a kick in the throat, this guy’s not funning around, so Hogwild switches it up to street style and clocks the guy’s ear and tosses him through the windshield of the Gorgon, which just about breaks his heart. Another guy comes at him with a sword and he dodges, bites the guy’s wrist till he lets go, then does the knuckle punch to the forehead which is surprisingly effective. Donnybrook all wrapped up, Hogwild dusts off his suit coat and pulls a small black envelope from the inside pocket, hands it to P’eng, says: “You need to be at the Hook County courthouse on July 17 at 9:30 AM.”
“Fuck,” Emperor P’eng says.
“The things, Voletta. The things I would do for you. For just one single night.”
“Such terrible things.”
“I’m not hearing any specifics.”
“I ... I would kill.”
“Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry, I don’t mean to yawn. It’s just that the hour grows late, my lids grow heavy. Perhaps I should retire. Alone.”
“I would ... I would kill a man. A good man. An innocent man.”
“How about an innocent child?”
“I ... I ...”
“There are no right or wrong answers. I’m just trying to gauge your level of dedication.”
“I ... yes. Yes, Voletta. Anything!”
“Would you strangle a little blond boy? In a field of sunflowers? While he looked up at you and whispered — through his tiny, constricted windpipe — Why, mister? Why?”
“Anything you ask! Please!”
“Would you give me the address you have written on a postcard in your coat pocket?”
“I ... but how? Nobody knows—”
“Would you give it to me right now?”
“Of ... of course, Voletta. Here. Whatever you want.”
“Thank you, Billy. You're a real sweetheart.”
“Voletta! No! Where are you going?”
“To my room. To disrobe and greet the darkness of the night. To pour a modicum of baby oil upon my breasts and run my hands over them. Slowly, so slowly.”
“Voletta, my love, please...!”
“Cancer runs in my family. You can never be too careful.”
The ship lurches, creaks under the onslaught of the storm. The crewmembers stand on the deck as if on level dry land, hands on hips, leaning nonchalantly against the masts. The captain gently brushes Capital Sam’s rainslick hair out of his face and says: “One more chance, old chum.”
Sam gives him a bloodied smile, says: “Appreciate your kind offer, but my answer remains the same. I am to deliver the Item to Johnny Gunpowder, him and him alone.”
“‘Tis a pity you had to swallow it, then,” the captain says, brandishing his Bowie.
“I feel the real pity is the lack of fealty in today’s contract privateers,” Sam says, and gives a little nod, and the quartermaster steps in and slits the captain’s throat. The crew lets out a cheer.
“A god damn shame,” Capital Sam says. “Very well, you wretches. Gather ‘round so I can pay you for your disloyalty.”
The first mate takes Sam by the throat. “Let’s think this over,” he says. “Maybe what’s in your gut is worth a lot more.”
Sam shoulders’ slump in dismay. He says: “Perhaps what’s in your gut will end this chain of treachery.”
The first mate staggers back, Sam’s knife deep in his stomach. The crew lets out a cheer.
They are deep in their cups. The music is now something raucous and unhinged. Gustav is fully nude behind the bar.
“So, she in?” Voletta asks Margaret.
“We’ll see,” Margaret says. “Tonight is for Hugo. Tomorrow is for Allison.”
“To Hugo!” Capital Sam says. “The Sea takes us all, sooner or later. Him, too soon. And yet, the lad gives me reason not to fear passing through the Curtain. For I know I shall see him on the other side, and we shall once again swap tales of gory adventure and lascivious encounters with the angels!”
“You’re going to have sex with the angels,” Voletta says.
“One day, my dear,” Sam sighs, rolling the liquor in his glass. “One day. I hear they are quite open minded. My friends, I shall deliver the bone to them with such artistry that they will weep, knowing that even eternity is too short a time to spend with me.”
“That’s beautiful,” Voletta says. “To Hugo! In some ways a fool. In many ways a child. But in many larger ways a man.”
“OK, what?” Allison says.
“Hm?” Voletta says.
“To Hugo!” Hogwild says. “Who taught me to always dream with my heart wide open, and to always listen with my eyes, and my heart.”
“What the fuck is everyone talking about.”
“Allison,” Margaret says. “Perhaps you’d like to say a few words.”
Allison slumps down in the booth, finishes her drink. “I been thinking about this thing that happened when we were kids. Ever since I heard he drowned.”
“Please do not bring this party down,” Voletta says.
“It’s got a happy ending,” Allison says. “Sort of.”
The Box Elder
Their grandparents had a house on the shore, and the shore got closer and closer with each flood season until there was no longer a house upon it, and no longer grandparents. But the year before that happened, the twins sat on the porch swing and watched the waves lap against the back stairs. About a hundred feet out to sea was the giant box elder, its branches reaching toward empty gray sky.
They had a word for it in their own internal twin language, something that basically translated to waterwood, though in Hugo’s mind it was more like waterhand. And to him, the tree’s appeal was its impossible distance. (Even at age six this attraction to unreachable places.) Something faraway and indistinct, shrouded in fog. Sometimes the home of this great flying creature, or when that was too scary, a stopping-off point for friendly sailors bringing news from overseas.
To Allison, it was a place to live someday. Someday soon. Today. She got up off the swing and dipped her toe in. She said she thought it could probably support a treehouse, if you built it right, if you used a book with instructions. Hugo said nothing, hoping to kill the idea right then and there with silence, though there was never any real silence when they were together, even if their mouths were shut.
Allison got in waist-deep, said she was going to just swim on over there and see what was what, and if any crybabies wanted to sit there and cry then they could go right on ahead because it didn’t make any difference to her. She was going to set up shop in the tree, and signal to the house with a flashlight when she needed sandwiches.
Hugo calmly explained that at night a giant squid would feel around for her with its giant slimy tentacles and then grab her and then pull her down under the water and then go to work on her with his beak because that’s what squids have, these creepy sharp beaks like a bird. Allison said at the very worst she’d get stung by a jellyfish and Hugo said that he hadn’t even thought of that and that’s ten times more painful.
Fifteen feet out, twenty. Allison suggested that her brother run inside and hide under their mother’s skirt and have a nice long cry. Hugo stood on the last step, watching as the tree turned black and skeletal. He said she was dumb, and how it was too bad he had such a dumb sister because then it made people think he was probably dumb, too, and if they thought that they’d be really wrong.
She looked so tiny, just her tiny head way out there, the dwindling light catching on a translucent barrette, once in a while a foot kicked but for some reason the sound no longer made it all the way back to the house.
Then of course she was gone entirely, and it was sort of like when he went fishing with the uncles and he’d be sitting there and sitting there, watcher the bobber float, and then he’d blink and it’d be gone and there’d be a handful of seconds before he realized what it meant.
And he dove in and the water tasted sour and there was absolutely nothing to see and he swallowed his pride and did the doggie-paddle which was the only stroke he could actually do and the tree didn’t seem to get any closer and he went back underwater and cried out his secret name for her and the branches of submerged trees scraped his ankles and there was nothing, and nothing.
He stopped, his breathing frantic, and then he decided to just float and let fate (their word was more like ghostfamily) take him where it wanted him to go, and whether it ended up good or bad, he’d at least learn something about life’s overall plan.
So he let go and sank down below the waves and he could feel the layers of different temperatures along the way. Then his foot brushed against her hair. He gripped it with his toes and pulled and her shriek was trapped within a burst of bubbles that crawled up his legs.
They held each other for a while, back on the porch, not speaking but saying we stay together OK for all time from now on OK that was the last time OK for serious, Hugo nodding and Allison staring at the tree, hating it, hating it.
They clink glasses and take long pulls and Capital Sam starts singing a song and after the first line everyone joins in, Allison included, which surprises her since she’s never heard it before.
We’re going away to leave you now
Good bye, fare thee well
Good bye, fare thee well
We’re going away to leave you now
Hoorah, me boys, we’re homeward bound
So fare you, we’re homeward bound
Homeward bound to old Hook town
So fill up your glasses for those who were kind
And drink to the girls we leave behind
We’re homeward bound I hear them say
We’re homeward bound with eleven months’ pay
Our anchor we’ll weigh, our sails we will set
The friends we are leaving we’ll never forget