D. Harrington Miller
D. Harrington Miller
He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk, top hat upturned in front of him, same as the day before and the years before that. Oblivious to the human surge racing across the intersection at every light change. His craggy, lived-in face and robin’s nest beard blend him into the Midtown streetscape.
A lycra-clad jogger bounds down the sidewalk, almost kicking the hat with her neon cross-trainers. He brushes a graying string of hair from his face. His eyes never waver from that damned hat.
The swell begins to subside. The lunch hour reaches its waning minutes.
A gleeful young girl totters up to him, a dollar bill clenched in her miniature fists, pigtails and purple ribbons bouncing with each step. She carefully places the bill into the hat, squealing with delight as she scurries back to her waiting mother.
He removes the dollar and drops it through the sewer grate beside him, a rote response at this point. She misunderstood. He blames the hat.
He cracks his knuckles. Takes a breath. It’s time. He closes his eyes, reaches inside the hat, and feels the frayed silk edges. He sighs. Leaning forward, he glances into it, just to make sure. He sees the worn-out insides of an empty, black, top hat.
He’ll try again in a few minutes. When the time is right.
There had been a time, a right time. It had not felt different in the moment. But it had been different. He had attempted to recreate that moment. In similar locations. Under near-identical circumstances. With friends as stand-ins. Until the friends dwindled and he was the only one left trying, and his favorite cloak became his only cloak, and his home became the street corner.
He had been there, in that room full of flailing four-year olds; couches pushed aside to give the magician room to do his tricks. The birthday girl in her frilly pink tutu and plastic tiara. The mothers watching, waiting, drinking. And the lone father recording the festivities on his flip-phone, scarfing down a cheeseburger with his free hand.
And finally, a gift for the birthday girl.
He reaches inside the top hat, as he has countless times before. A simple deception.
The birthday girl approaches, giggling, rosy-cheeked.
Happy Birthday, Sarah!
A king cobra hisses and writhes in his hand. The birthday girl screams. The four-year olds scream. The mothers scream. The father tries to scream, but chokes on an unmasticated piece of cheeseburger patty.
He drops the cobra. The frightened creature slithers towards the wailing birthday girl and bites her on the ankle.
The other frightened creature runs out of the house and dives into the beat-up van he calls The Magic Bus. He stays there for the next hour, crying in the driver’s seat, trying to make sense of the day’s events. After that long and tearful deliberation, he comes to a verdict: it was the hat’s fault.
King cobras aren’t even indigenous to New Jersey, he will later explain (to the police). And why would he have brought a king cobra to a child’s birthday party? What kind of a monster do they think he is? The worst kind.
He shows them his jacket pocket, the white rabbit hidden inside, ready to be conjured. Her name is Mathilde. The cops refuse to pet Mathilde. He feeds her a baby carrot. The trick was to pull a rabbit from a hat. Instead, he pulled out a king cobra. He swears it was magic. He blames the hat.
After six months in jail, he finally tastes freedom. It takes a lot like Hoboken. He learns that his final performance as a magician was performed six months ago. He also learns that he is being sued for sixty thousand dollars. He wants to stop learning things. He blames the hat.
The evening breeze carries a chill. The lunch hour long past. Shadows stretch across 49th Street. He has a long walk ahead of him to the shelter. But there’s time for one last attempt.
He cracks his knuckles, takes a breath — and reaches into the empty hat. Not even thinking about it, really. He’s still remembering the birthday party, and the six months in jail. He feels a prick on his fingertip. Shooting pain.
He removes a thorny rose from the hat. Vibrant and red. The kind you would see in a Valentine’s Day commercial. He admires it for a moment. Floral perfection. Conjured out of thin air. But it’s not a king cobra. So he tosses the rose into the gutter and waits to try again. Maybe, this time, he’ll finally get it right.
D. Harrington Miller
D. Harrington Miller
“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.
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.
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.
D. Harrington Miller
D. Harrington Miller
Will leaned against a tree trunk, idly picking at the bark. He broke off a small bit and tossed it to the ground. They had been waiting what felt like forever. On a school night. It was getting dark. A few more minutes and they would have trouble finding their way back. He might even miss dinner.
He looked over at Parker, seated atop a rotted-out log, staring blankly into the distance; that same face he had at the end of a math lesson. Will let out a sigh and fished inside his cargo shorts for some gum.
“Shhh,” whispered Dylan, bringing a finger to his pursed lips.
Will got the message, and it seemed the forest did too. The birds ceased their chirping. The wind died down. He almost believed that the woods wanted them to listen.
Parker whined, “I don’t hear anything.”
“Listen,” Dylan hissed.
An otherworldly moan cut through the silence. Will froze.
“I told you,” whispered Dylan.
The cry stretched on for what seemed like hours then tapered off into nothingness.
“Th-That’s a bird,” said Parker, in an unconvincing squeak.
Dylan glared at Parker. “It’s not a bird.”
“You really think it’s a monster?” asked Will.
Dylan didn't say another word after that. They believed.
Will slept with the covers over his head that night. The lonesome call of Dylan’s unseen monster made him more sad than scared, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
The next day was a Saturday. Dylan said the monster wasn’t around during the weekend. He had listened a few times. The call only came during the week. He had never actually seen the creature, but he was the first one to hear it, making him the only “expert” in their group of three. So Will took him at his word.
The boys spent the afternoon playing “Nam” in the park by Will’s house. None of them really knew what “Nam” was, outside of a confusing Google search, but Will’s Pop-Pop, when he was alive, used to complain about the shrapnel in his leg he got “over there.” So Dylan came up with a game where they threw small rocks at each other and made exploding sounds. There wasn’t really a winner, but it usually ended with Parker heading home for a band-aid. This time, they only played about ten minutes, then Dylan got distracted by a squirrel and started flinging rocks at it instead.
Will had known Parker longer. Their moms told them they were born at the same time, but in different hospitals. They even looked alike, sorta. Quiet, brown eyes. A shock of dirty blonde hair. Long, thin noses that always seemed to be stuffed up with mucous. But Will had a few inches on Parker, and he had all the toes on his left foot.
Dylan joined them in second grade. He told them he had been at a different school, in Ellicott City, but he didn’t say much else. Neither of the boys cared. Nothing important happened in first grade anyway, and kindergarten seemed like a distant memory. Dylan lived close by and had a knack for getting into the fun kind of trouble, so they welcomed him into the fold; though, it was more like Will and Parker joined Dylan’s group of one than the other way around.
After school on Monday, the boys went back to the woods. Will told his mom he was going to play video games at Parker’s house; after finishing his homework, of course. Parker’s mother bought his fib about tagging along with Will to Tae Kwon Do class. Dylan just showed up. He never had to explain much to anyone, at least from what Will could tell.
They didn’t have to wait nearly so long this time.
The howl was quieter than before, barely audible over the evening breeze. But it was unmistakeable. Dylan beamed with pride. He had been telling them for weeks about the monster he heard in the woods behind his house. The first time, it could have been anything, maybe a dying coyote, but now, they couldn’t deny it; the monster was real. Parker thought maybe they should tell their parents. Dylan threw a rock at him, not for fun. He made them swear on their lives that they would never tell a soul about the monster. They both swore.
Will didn’t touch his dinner that night. He told his mom he had lost his appetite, but she demanded he take a bite anyway; spaghetti night was his favorite. When he looked down at his plate, all he saw were the disemboweled intestines of the monster’s victims. His stomach grumbled for hours while he lay in bed, trying to sleep. The sound reminded him again of the monster. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back. But the next day, Dylan insisted.
Once again, the boys trekked through the forest and waited for the monster’s call. The sun went down, and with the night came the type of chill that makes your eyes water. But no howl. Parker said he had to pee. Dylan told him the woods was one big toilet; they weren’t leaving. Will stared at the shiner above Dylan’s left eye and asked a million silent questions.
It was past dinner and Will had to get back. His mom would start worrying.
“You’re scared,” Dylan seethed.
Will shivered. He shook his head.
“I’m scared,” offered Parker.
Dylan glared at them, his breath curling up into the air like ghostly tendrils. Parker flinched, expecting a rock to come sailing in his direction, But Dylan’s face softened. He kicked a stump with his dirty Vans.
They only visited the forest one other time that winter, but they never heard the monster. Dylan figured it was roaming other parts of the woods. Parker thought maybe a bigger monster had come along and ate it. Will hoped that was the case. But Dylan insisted it was still out there, monsters don’t eat other monsters.
Just before Halloween, Dylan invited the boys over to his house for the first time in their friendship. It was too cold outside to play “Nam,” but Will figured Dylan already had some new game stewing in his brain. He usually did.
They were met at the door by Dylan’s step-dad. Dylan called him “Jeff” and flinched whenever he got too close. Will pretended not to notice.
They drank orange pop around the dinner table while Jeff heated some old queso in the microwave. Dylan kept his eyes on the floor. Parker started to ask what they were all gonna dress up as this year. Maybe they could be a team of soldiers. But then he remembered that they were each doing their own Halloween costumes. He was gonna be Iron Man. Will was thinking of being a mummy. Dylan didn’t answer.
A low moan echoed through the house; a familiar, heartbreaking howl.
“His ma’s upstairs sleeping,” offered Jeff. “She came down with something.”
He took a fresh beer from the fridge and held it against his puffy, red knuckles.
Parker wondered if they could see Dylan’s room, but Jeff said the boys had to stay downstairs.
“Or the basement,” he continued, “But I don’t want you touching the TV. I finally got the DVR set.”
They heard another cry. Louder this time. Jeff excused himself and walked upstairs, taking two steps at a time. He yelled something Will couldn’t make out. A few moments later, the moaning stopped. After a long silence, Dylan finally peeled his eyes from the checkered floor.
“I wanna show you guys something.”
Dylan kept a bucket behind the house, hidden in some bushes that were full of poison ivy in the summer. Inside the bucket was a frozen, dead squirrel. It’s head was cracked open and blood pooled around the ice. Dylan told them he had found it like that, up the road a ways. Probably hit by a car, or maybe it came down with something. He kept the squirrel cold so they could use it to lure the monster the next time they were in the woods. Maybe they would see it this time.
D. Harrington Miller
D. Harrington Miller