Pandora (I-22)

 

“That used to be a waterpark over there. Splashville U.S.A. I went with my mom every summer.”

 

He raises the gun from behind the counter, his quivering hand indicating nerves, or years of alcohol abuse. Either way, not good for me. I keep the crumbling towers of the waterpark in my peripherals, my eyes on the danger.

 

“Then they got that special dye that turns the water purple if you pee and I stopped going. I didn’t want to risk the embarrassment. Everyone slips up, eventually.”

 

I don’t know why I felt compelled to share that particular tidbit. Popular wisdom suggests that you, the victim, attempt to connect with your assailant. Humanize yourself. Makes it harder for them to pull the trigger. Assuming that the one holding your life in their hands is, in fact, human.

I feel his eyes on my chest. They’re not much to look at, but I’m sure it beats the moldering Victoria’s Secret catalogues the old creep probably has squirreled away in some storage closet. I almost pity him. Even though the geezer has a loaded weapon aimed at the very bosom he’s ogling, he never asked to be here. That’s my fault, him being here. And I don’t count myself a fan of the male gaze, but at least he wasn’t turning me to stone. Nothing worse than stumbling upon a gorgon.

 

“Why don’t you just get inside and save yourself the hassle?”

 

He eyes the metal box laying on the floor. It’s not much bigger than a jewelry case. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I’d first opened it. The geezer knows exactly what it is.

 

“Don’t you wanna go home?”

 

Saliva foams at the edges of his lips, oozing down grayed whiskers. He bleats out a viscous directive, showering the counter with sea-green spittle. The pistol waves inches from my face.

I slowly raise my hands, half-guessing the content of his message. His eyes flit to the bloodstained gauntlet on my left hand, the thick chain connecting it to the box, and, finally, back to my chest.

 

“It doesn’t have to be this way.”

 

I truly didn’t expect to find him here. This far is into the droughtlands, you don’t see too many convenience stores still operating. It’s not like centaurs pay credit. They just take. The rest of them… yeah, occasionally you meet a nice demiurge who has, ironically, learned to control his urges, but the rest are pretty much wild beasts. Still, I should have known better. The geezer tipped it when he offered me paper or plastic. They’d stopped making paper bags when the dryads reclaimed the woods.

My hand goes to my collar. Slowly. Button-by-button. Peeking inches of sun-starved skin.

 

 “Or you could take me to the back room…”

 

 I drop my voice an octave, annunciating each syllable with my most tarty affectation. A well-rehearsed siren’s song.

 

“…and have your way with me.”

 

The horny old goat thrusts his loins against the counter, overtaken with lust. His nails dig into the grain. The gun slips from his hand. In an instant, I whip the box off the floor, spinning the Hephaestus-grade chain over my head like some medieval mace, and crack the satyr in the head. Teeth and whiskers flying. He collapses into the rear wall, buried under a cascade of cigarettes and condoms.

I fumble the box top, trying to pry open the antique hinges. Too slow.

The satyr springs from the floor. Crusty hooves clomp onto the counter. Patchy gray wool coats his beastly legs. He roars, blasting my olfactories with the stench of black mold and rat guts. I’ve smelled worse.

I swing the box like a five iron and catch him under the chin. What was left of his incisors plink onto the tile floor. He wobbles atop the counter. Upright, for now. A greenish slop oozes from busted lips. His left eyeball looks at me askance. I must have knocked it loose.

He leaps from the counter and smashes into the magazine rack. The metal wiring lances him through the hip, spraying green arterial fluid across antique gossip rags.

I slow my approach, trying to give that sense of impending doom. Really get him scared. I should be allowed to have some fun with it… Fun. I guess this is fun. Not sure what else qualifies.

The satyr slips and squirms in his pooling blood. He screams an unholy racket.

 I wrench open the box and toss it beside the beaten creature. The ride is over.

 

“Get in.”

 

The satyr looks back at me, his one good eye filled with dread. No doubt weighing the options of returning from whence he came or continuing the beatdown. Moment of truth…

He tries to mumble words through his shattered jaw, “P-p-pity.”

But I have none left. All my pity evaporated the day I destroyed the world.

 

I’m sorry Mom. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

 

I step on the satyr’s ankle, feeling the give of his bone. A hard stomp and I could crack it, no problem.

 

“Get in,” I repeat.

 

I was not always a hardened badass — I mean, most of it’s a front anyway — But you pick up things.

At first you’re just playing the part. But after putting away eighty-six mostly-violent creatures, that moment of hesitation. The guilt. That last bit of empathy. It feels like something you may have felt. Once. After a few too many fingers of whiskey. But you’re not quite sure.

I raise my foot.

The satyr gets the hint. Whimpers. He reaches towards the box, and the box reaches back. The opaque darkness within curls out of its metal confines, swirling around him. A floating ink blot. And then as quickly as it enveloped the creature, it sucks itself back into the box. No more satyr.

I kick the box top shut. That was easier than most. Not even a scratch on me.

A face stares up at me from the blood-splattered floor. A human face. Wizened. A touch of jaundice. Eyes wide and unblinking.  Probably someone’s beloved grandpa. Maybe a side job as a Mall Santa. He had the beard for it.

I prod his hip with my foot. Nothing. They rarely make it through the separation.

My attention drifts. In the distance, Splashville U.S.A. I remember that twenty-by-ten stretch of sand alongside a chlorinated wave pool, just past the park entrance. Barnacle Beach. I would spend hours building a single sandcastle. Paying special attention to the tower in which I, the princess, would eat and sleep and await my prince. My mom would help, in her mom way, slathering on sunscreen and moral support. But eventually the artificial tide would strike my castle, eroding the walls. Leaving only the foundations. And I’d start to rebuild…

 

A crash from the back.

I whip up the box, twirling it over my head. Ready to bust another skull.

A screeching horned creature tumbles out of the men’s room. Enormous, curved, demon antlers protruding from the forehead of a plump, acne-scarred ginger. A roll of toilet paper caught on a horn tip, hanging down like a streamer.

I let the box fall back to the floor. It’s just Mook.

 

“Where the heck were you?”

 

Mook rubs the area around his massive protrusions, sniveling, “I got caught in the stall. Didn’t you hear me banging? I thought I was gonna be trapped there forever. You know I hate confined spaces.”

 

“I was a little busy taking down a satyr.”

 

Mook shudders, “How big?”

 

“Big enough to cause trouble. The point of back-up is to actually back me up when the situation arises.” I should point out that it was Mook’s idea to tag along on this trip. He thought I needed moral support. What I really needed was someone to stay out of my way. And, of course, after Mile Marker Seven the hemming and the hawing began. So I let him help. This was Mook “helping.”

 

“I didn’t know…” His voice trails off. Shoulders slump. Eyes downcast. He feels bad. No use haranguing him further.

 

Mook is trans. Trans-magickal, i.e. he was born human. Michael Irvin Moukowitz of Akron, Ohio.

Like many humans after… that day… the return of myth meant that Michael could finally put a pale, freckled finger on his affliction: he was a majickal creature trapped in a human body. More specifically, a minotaur trapped in the doughy folds of a semi-asthmatic Jewish boy. So when he turned 18 and became legally independent of his conservative parents, Michael had two polyeurathane goat horns surgically implanted onto his skull, moved to Hollywood (Florida), and became “Mook.”

I never met Michael. By the time I rescued my soon-to-be travel buddy from a particularly intolerant herd of actual minotaurs, Michael was Mook. I never knew him as anything else. But “Michael” still shines through at times, and he was always a gentle soul.

 

I pick a liter of Pibb off the closest rack and make for the door, eyeing a blood-splattered Cosmo on the way out. “10 Ways to Tone Your Butt.” Here’s one way: Try to survive for twenty-four hours in a world where human beings are no longer at the top of the food chain. You’ll get a tight tush in no time. And an incredibly bleak outlook on that whole “life” thing.

Mook grabs as many unopened Cheetos bags as he can and hustles after me. We have a long trip ahead of us….

And mom is waiting.

 

Mook (I-40)

 

Sometimes, I really hate the horns.

I mean, yeah, I get it. At this point that’s like saying, “I hate my cuticles” (which I do). They’re as much a part of me as my cuticles, and I can’t really change them. I mean, I could, technically. But I don’t have forty grand. And Doctor Tony Nguyen of Orlando, Florida, was tragically mauled by a cerberus last year, so I’d have to find a new doctor. And that’s a whole thing.

Anyway I’m more “me” with them than without them. So they’re here to stay.

But as we fly down the highway, neither of us can ignore the high-pitched whistle my horns make as they catch the wind, sticking out Pan’s sunroof. They howl like a steaming kettle. But Pan says nothing, even though I know she is beyond annoyed. Pan’s always quiet when she’s peeved. I try to drown out the sound with radio, but all we can get are the Emergency Broadcast System and NPR.

Harpy attacks in Portland. Secessionist Sicilian scyllas seeking self-governance. Another Princess cruise lost to a kraken…

I switch to the emergency broadcast. It’s only slightly less annoying than the horn whistling, so the two sort of cancel each other out.

 

Poor Pan. I can’t even image what it would be like, causing all this. She doesn’t tell the story. Ever. But I know it. Everyone knows the story. A story that became legend the moment it happened. Pandora, the girl who destroyed the world. And she was a girl at the time. Getting ready for prom, looking for a necklace to pair with her frilly pink dress — That’s the part most people don’t know — Anyway, it’s not fair to blame her for wanting to look nice for prom. That’s universal.

 

Based on the dashboard clock, we’re eight hours outside Atlanta — No one had done that since B-Day and lived to talk about it. I once met a wannabe cyclops at a trans-club who claimed he’d driven all the way to St. Louis. But the Anemoi ruled Tornado Alley. Everyone knew that. No way he made it there and back. That beautiful bi-clops was one-hundred-percent full of shit.

A dark cloud appears on the horizon.

Pan tenses. She’s always tense. That girl hasn’t relaxed since she opened that stupid box. She needs to get laid. Badly.

But it’s only birds. Thousands of them. A murder of crows.