by Rebecca Nazar
One morning, Roy asked his grandmother, Midge, for money to buy an ice cream. Always overprotective, she offered to go with him. Roy pointed out he was twelve, almost thirteen; he was old enough to get the treat himself. Midge relented, her smile brittle.
Roy’s rare taste of freedom was a swirling, white spire. Savoring each lick, he beamed victorious all the way home, until he saw the bloated porcupine carcass frothing with maggots in the bushes beside his house. A beast — part shadow, part vulture, part boar, all menace — nuzzled the carrion.
Midge marveled at the beast from the front porch. She had baited death — a gruesome one. Thrilled, her trembling hands fluttered at her chest. “Hello there, big fella.”
“Hello, my name is Cyrus. Can you make this porcupine more palatable?”
“If you do my bidding,” Midge said.
“Of course.” A sly grin split Cyrus’ wooly face.
Midge and Cyrus sized each other up. Both had a purpose: a monster’s murderous means meeting the mad witch’s desperate ends. A cozy fit.
“Look Roy, a gruesome death is here,” Midge beamed.
What little innocence Roy had left fled from the dark.
* * *
At dusk, Roy reminded his grandmother, “You can’t be nice to Cyrus. We don’t practice dark magic. Mom stopped monsters like him, and Grandpa, too.”
“Alice and Peter did no such thing.” Midge wagged her frosty head. Her eyes shone with tears as she pushed a few more quills into the decayed dessert. The Mercer family had foiled gruesome deaths for two generations. Midge used to know that. Pieces of her memory had been gobbled up; now she feasted on heaping helpings of fantasy.
“Maybe I can be a courier, too,” Roy said.
“Hush, grab the coffee. Cyrus is waiting out on the veranda,” Midge hissed.
While carrying the heavy coffee pot, Roy’s wrists cocked awkwardly. The coffee beans and chicory had simmered for hours, rendering the brew thick and heavy as pitch. Cyrus helped himself. The coffee trailed from pot to cup, lolling like a slick, black tongue.
“Why are you here?” Roy asked, his voice thin, his legs trembling.
Cyrus sliced a slab of coffee off into his cup. His steel-trap gaze met the boy’s. Cyrus’ eyes were gravestone gray and soulless. Roy’s were a rich brown like freshly tilled soil. He possessed a soul sage from birth.
The two were at odds.
“What am I supposed to do? Starve? A whiff of revenge drew me here. As you know, we gruesome deaths have an appetite for violence. Flesh and spirit are delicacies to us, but we cannot feed unless instructed to do so by some vengeful witch,” Cyrus said, sucking on his coffee.
“She’s not a dark witch. She wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Roy’s legs no longer trembled. “My Mom and Grandpa told me how to save spirits, too.”
“Yes, your family’s freakish hobby.”
“You’re the next generation, perhaps. They were twice your age when they became couriers. Telling you how to salvage souls, and your being able to pull it off, as a wee-pup, has yet to be seen,” Cyrus said, with a dismissive wave of his claw. “Death is crap, piss, and wasting flesh — a stew of rot. Can you acquire a taste for all that?”
Roy swallowed hard, “Yes, someday.”
“Your grandfather and mother were strong, transporting dozens to the afterlife.”
“My Mom is still strong.”
Cyrus chuckled, “She would make a lovely salad now, boy.”
Roy felt a sharp jab to his heart.
With the plastic grace and a lacquer smile of a game show hostess, Midge appeared and presented her porcupine recipe to Cyrus.
“What’s this, what’s this, my carrion?” He turned the pie plate a half turn this way and that, piercing with his talons the cloudy meringue peaks littered with quills. He sampled. “Heavenly,” he said, with a thunderous roll of laughter.
Midge cackled lightening-sharp. “Cyrus, there’s a man, Randal Percy, who lives around here. He has this spiky hair, and all these piercings. He harasses Alice all the time. Kill him,” Midge said.
Roy’s knees buckled. Midge steadied him, putting her arm around his shoulders, giving him a tender squeeze, as if her condemning someone to death was a glorious occasion they shared.
“Just kill Randal quick,” Midge snapped. Maroon lipstick stained one of her incisors.
Cyrus bowed his head, “Of course, dear lady.” He swallowed his last clot of pitch, licked his cup, plate, pan, and table clean. Midge lit two cigarettes. As night fell, Cyrus and Midge smoked together — two brimstone fireflies, courting in the dark.
* * *
In bed that night Roy clung to memories. They were a cold comfort.
Before his mother slipped into a coma, she had told him, with a wistful smile gracing her gaunt face, “If you decide to become a courier, the Mercer family tradition will continue. It’s a noble pursuit, despite the sacrifices. Savor every spirit.”
Before his grandfather passed away, he explained his gift to Roy, “I remember reading about a murdered girl who had met a gruesome death. Some part of me just drew me to her, to help her spirit, and I did. The notion just came to me, like a bird takes to the sky. I called myself a courier. It sounded fancy. I just hungered to protect spirits.”
Roy’s grief and the burden of following in their footsteps weighed heavy as a millstone. “Savor every one,” he whispered to the night. He focused on Randal and slept like the dead.
* * *
The following morning, Midge shook Roy awake with the news Randal was dead. Cyrus had assured her. Roy knew; he’d rummaged through Randal’s remains, looking for a morsel of the man’s spirit. Although he never physically touched the corpse, Roy’s body felt caked with filth. Each muscle ached; an acrid, sulfur like taste coated his tongue. His head throbbed with jittering images of flayed limbs and gutted bowels, yet he was full with the satisfaction of besting Cyrus. Despite being twelve, he had rescued Randal’s precious spirit.
Roy’s limbs ached, as if he had been stretched thin and twisted. Exhausted, he spent most of the day sleeping on the couch.
Midge concocted another recipe for Cyrus that afternoon. She began by gutting rotten peaches. “Want to help?” she smiled, offering Roy a peach as he stumbled into the kitchen. Her madness hadn’t ended. She clawed the black pulp from the pit. Her fingernails were long and fire engine red. She wore a blouse with a garish print of red roses. When clutching the pieces of the blackened fruit, she looked as if she was ripping tumors out of her chest. With each moist squish, a sick, sweet stench spread throughout the kitchen. Roy gagged. Sharply whistling out the kitchen window, she summoned the recipe’s vital ingredient, a bird. Unable to stomach killing anything herself, she slammed the window shut. Within moments, a mourning dove smashed into the glass, shattering one of the panes into a splintered mosaic. Roy flinched. Midge tittered. Both ran outside.
They found Cyrus hovering over the dead bird. “Fresh,” he said, seeping towards his snack.
“Only the freshest,” Midge said.
Cyrus winked at Roy.
Midge knelt and scooped up the mourning dove with her sticky fingers. She slowly rolled the bird from side to side, unfurling its wings, pinching the meat on its breast.
The bird’s head swung like a pendulum.
Roy’s heart pummeled his ribs.
* * *
At dusk, Cyrus plowed his snout through the peach pulp and feather custard, his flaccid jowls shuttering with each gulp. “Lovely, tasty,” he moaned.
“There is an older lady with a peaches and cream complexion. She’s flighty as a bird, and a gossip. She spread lies about my Peter. Her name is Ida Crandall. Kill her,” Midge said.
“Like Randal, I’ll flay her for a few hours,” Cyrus said.
“Do it quickly,” Midge said, her tone indignant.
“I kid, a very poor joke, Midgey.”
“Can I talk to you in private,” Roy called out to Midge from the backyard.
Cyrus chuckled and returned to his swill.
Midge tottered across the yard, her stiletto pumps piercing the lawn. She grabbed Roy by the elbow, shook him, and hissed, “What is wrong with you?”
“I can’t help Ida. I thought I could do it again, but I can’t. It’s too soon,” Roy sobbed. He watched Cyrus on the veranda.
Cyrus tipped the bowl and called out, “Hungry, boy?”
Midge smoothed Roy’s flushed face with her pallid hands, “Help Ida? She deserves to die, like Randal deserved to die. They were nasty to members of my family who didn’t deserve to die.”
“I’m a courier now,” Roy sniffled.
Midge’s eyes waxed cold. His words did not register with her. “Poor boy, look at you. You’ve lost so much. You’re just a shell of your former self.” She studied his face, as if picking out produce for one of her recipes, “I promise all this business will be over real quick.” She mussed his hair and returned to Cyrus.
* * *
For hours, fearful and trembling, Roy sat on his bed, waiting for Ida’s spirit to cry out. His muscles ached; his stomach growled, but he had no appetite. He knew both maladies were caused by the hazards of being a courier.
Years ago, after years of snatching spirits away from gruesome deaths, his grandfather ate less and less, and slowly wasted away. He suffered for months.
“Traveling between the terrestrial and ethereal takes its toll. Half of me is here. The other calls for me to cross, but I’m stuck and being pulled both ways. No worries though, boy, I’ll get there eventually,” he had told Roy.
His mother still waned in a nursing home. Midge tempted Alice with Jello, pudding, ice cream, and a rainbow of popsicles, but all made puddles in their dishes. Midge, losing yet another loved one, and hungry for answers, cried in the corner at each visit: Why did she become a courier? How could I let her after what happened to Peter? How long will she suffer? The clock in Alice’s room sounded like quick, quick, quick, but she lingered.
Midge, her spells useless in restoring those she loved, became revengeful and mad, embracing the dark arts, while waiting for the inevitable.
Roy heard Ida’s tortured wails. He tensed and pushed his painful memories away. Taking a deep inhalation of breath, he fixed the old woman’s face in his mind and fainted dead away.
* * *
Heeding Midge’s whistle, a painted turtle spent most of the morning crossing the busy intersection. Twice it plodded to safety only to have Midge fetch it back to face the gauntlet of cars again. Frantic, she acted as if she had won the lottery when the turtle was crushed during the morning rush of traffic. She baked and basted the mess all day.
At dusk, Roy woke. Before his mind became swamped with images of the night’s dreadful task, he savored the memory of Cyrus’ pitiful face and thorny chin trembling like a baby’s whose candy had been stolen. Roy had snatched Ida’s spirit away, as effortlessly as taking a breath. He now hungered for the challenge.
A wretched stench assaulted Roy’s nose. He entered the kitchen and approached the latest recipe — a charred shell stuffed with an assortment of nuts — cooling on the kitchen counter. Midge had told him last night he was just a shell of his former self. A wave of nausea rolled his bowels. His grandmother’s insanity was a pit that grew deeper and darker with each passing hour.
“Roy?” Midge shuffled into the kitchen. Her face hung slack and expressionless. “Quick, quick,” she mumbled. “I told Cyrus to be quick.”
Over her left shoulder, Roy saw the smiling photographs of Ida and Randal on the television. The screen quickly flipped to video of policemen hauling two body bags out of the woods. The scrolling caption read, “...a confidential source confirms victims were tortured and slowly skinned alive over a course of hours.”
“They’re okay, Gran. Cyrus didn’t get their spirits. I saved them.”
Midge wailed as reality shattered her delusions, “I can’t bear to watch you suffer, Roy, quick, quick.” She glanced at the recipe.
Cyrus crept out of the corners. His shadow crossed over Midge; one of its sharp points looked as if it was about to pierce her heart. “You were not specific, love. I thought I was quick. It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose. What’s on the menu tonight?” Cyrus rubbed his barbed belly.
Midge’s eyes rested on Roy. Her eyes swelled with tears. She cleared her throat, but her voice still croaked, “Well, for all these months, Alice has suffered. She’s not alive. She’s not dead. Being a courier destroyed her, my husband, and now my Roy. Well, I won’t have it. I can’t watch him suffer, too.”
Roy didn’t feel like a shell of his former self. He balled his fist, knowing he could endure his grandmother’s insanity and anything Cyrus put him through. He studied their faces and saw only weakness.
Midge continued, “I think all the time about smothering Alice with a pillow, but I just can’t. I just want her to die quickly and not to suffer.” She straightened her posture, as if about to face a firing squad. “For a mother to think such thoughts about her own child. I’m just a shell of my former self. I’m completely nuts. I don’t deserve to live. Kill m...”
Roy lunged at Midge, clasping his hand over her mouth like a vise. “Don’t say it!” Both fell in a heap to the floor.
“Come on boy, let her speak. She’s crazy. Look at what she put you through,” Cyrus said, oblivious of the irony of his statement.
“Get out of here. You’re done with us. She couldn’t help it!” Roy screamed.
Deflated, Cyrus let out a ragged breath, “Fine, I’ll find another invitation somewhere else. I never go hungry for very long,” he said, as he melted towards the door. A sneer graced his face. He wet his lips.
Midge’s grief came with a tide of tears. “I just can’t understand nor bear the unfairness of it all, Roy. You promise to stay with me, promise me, now,” she sobbed.
“I promise,” Roy nodded again and again, while hugging and crying into her shoulder. Midge, for now, anchored him to the spot. But Roy swore he heard a spirit’s plea; his limbs felt its tug. Wincing, he tightened his grip around his grandmother, knowing his hunger to salvage spirits would someday pull him towards the darkness.
His heart beat quick, quick, quick.
Copyright © 2008 by Rebecca Nazar