By Brantley Thompson Elkins
I’m not sure when this story starts, let alone when it ends. If it has ended. The first I heard of it was after Hank Bowdry and Dave Lewis got kicked off a flight from Portland to Las Vegas, thus missing something called the AURG convention.
I didn’t know Hank and Dave. I didn’t even want to know them. But Mike Morrow knew them, and for some reason he was obsessed with their doings. Mike used to live in Portland himself, but somehow he passed the Civil Service test and got a job at the post office in Kalama.
Hank and Dave were living in Kalama at the time, and working at the Burger Bar. They’ve since gone on to smaller and worser things. Mike met them because, even though there was a McDonald’s a few blocks away, he had a thing for the raspberry shakes at the Burger Bar and went there instead. Also, it was closer to the post office.
Mike has other strange obsessions. One of them is fat women – he’s been through three of them since I’ve known the guy; now he’s on a fourth, and he’s a shrimp himself. Another is science fiction. Well, that’s not strange in itself, except that he’s passionate only for writers hardly anyone else reads, like the late R.A. Lafferty. How he hooked up with Hank and Dave I can’t imagine, even though he’s told me about it more than once.
Well, sure they were working at the Burger Bar, but how often do you talk to fast food workers? And these two were guys with no taste, none at all – certainly not for writers like Lafferty, not even for the better TV series like Babylon 5 and Farscape. And yet before I knew it, they were collaborating with Mike on a fan fiction anthology project called Polish Wonder Stories. Somehow that had never come off; I thought it was probably just as well.
Anyway, every time I met him, Mike seemed to have another Hank and Dave story. As I said, this particular one began with them getting kicked off the Las Vegas flight. They didn’t make it onto the plane, actually. Dave had started regaling the other passengers in the waiting room with a song that began, "I got shoes. You got shoes. All Al Qaeda got shoes." That would have been bad enough, except that the next line began, "When I get on the plane, I’m gonna blow up my shoes—"
Needless to say, the security guards were on him like a swarm of piranhas before he could get the rest out. He and Hank spent the rest of the day being grilled, and were warned not to set foot anywhere near the airport again. They were out the money they’d scraped up for the tickets, too, and had to slink back to Kalama with their tails between their legs.
Knowing from previous accounts that Hank and Dave were pretty impecunious – the latter seemed to have set a local record for bad checks – I wondered how they’d saved the money for the trip in the first place, or why they were so eager to go to this particular event.
"It was some sort of comic fan convention," Mike half-explained. "Only Hank said he’d heard they were dressing up some model as Supergirl and she’d be giving it away to the fans."
"You always told me these guys were stupid, but that stupid?"
"Well, Hank said he’d been in Portland and overheard somebody talking about it on the 22 bus over his cell phone."
"Right. The 22 bus."
"But the guy mentioned a web link that was supposed to be for members only, even gave his password to whoever he was talking to for some reason, so Hank had Dave check it out."
"Members of what?" I didn’t ask why Dave had the computer instead of Hank.
"This comic fan sex club. AURG is the cover name. I think it’s for Aurora Universe Research Group."
"So they thought they could infiltrate this group and fuck some woman dressed up as Supergirl?"
"That’s the story."
"They couldn’t get laid here if their lives depended on it, but they thought some model was going to do them in Vegas?"
Mike just shrugged. We went on to talk of other things, and I never expected to hear anything more of this particular Hank and Dave story.
I work for a grocery buying organization in Portland. I won’t mention the name, but if you live anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve seen our products in supermarkets. I didn’t get together with Mike again for several months because we were in the middle of a label redesign and everybody involved in that was working overtime.
One of the designers gave us some comic relief. Like when she printed out a prototype for adult diaper packaging under the Free to Pee sub-brand. But mostly it was a grind, even if the graphics programs made it fairly easy to play around with the design elements. It was one of those days when I wanted to call it a night that Mike phoned me after work, all hot and bothered.
"They found her!" he told me.
"Hank and Dave. They found Supergirl."
"What, the Vegas model?"
"No, the real thing."
"Are you as dumb as they are, or what? Anyway, there isn’t any real thing, unless you believe the tabloids, which I don’t."
"I know it sounds crazy but I swear it’s true. They can prove it."
"So what you’re saying is, a strange visitor from another planet just happens to land in Kalama?"
"Where the hell is Deer Meadow, and what are those two idiots doing there?"
It turned out that they’d lost their jobs at the Burger Bar, left Kalama and fetched up at a trailer park in a small hamlet on the Wind River in the foothills of the Cascade Range, 45 miles east of the I-5 and up a side road from State Highway 14. He could take me there, but he swore me to secrecy.
Well, the weekend was coming up, and I could use a break. Not just from work, but from a painful memory: just a year ago, my girl had left me, gone off in a world filled with stuff – the kind of stuff I couldn’t provide enough of. "You’re boring," she’d told me, by way of an explanation. Well, maybe I was, but I doubted I was any more boring than the plastic surgeon I’d heard she was going with now.
I could go along with the secrecy thing to humor Mike; anyway, chances were that the only real secret was Hank and Dave setting a new record for stupidity. If it went beyond that, it was probably amounted to nothing more than some local girl playing dress-up to impress the football team or, if she were more ambitious, a plastic surgeon – if they had one in Deer Meadow.
I met Mike in Kalama Saturday after he finished his stint at the post office, and I left my car there. We had lunch at the Burger Bar, then he drove us back down to Vancouver in his used Ford, and from there up the Columbia River to the Deer Meadow turnoff. We got there by mid-afternoon.
Let’s just say that it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The Fat Trout was the grungiest place I’d ever seen. Decades-old trailers, some with peeling paint and sitting on cinder blocks. Mike parked the Ford and led me to a faded blue one with a decrepit wooden porch slapped on one side. Out front was a beat-up old Dodge with a number of bullet holes along the left side.
When Mike rapped on the door, it was answered by a tub of lard with greasy black hair who turned out to be Dave. Hank was a blond guy with a crew cut and a bad case of acne. Inside, the trailer was cramped, and Hank and Dave weren’t exactly the world’s best housekeepers. But they made an attempt to be hospitable.
"Hey, want some Good Morning America?" Hank asked.
"It’s Saturday," I ventured. "Afternoon."
"He means coffee," Mike broke in. "That’s what Carl calls it."
"Who’s Carl?" I asked.
"The manager," said Hank.
"He ain’t much use," Dave added. "We aren’t letting him in on this."
I was about to press him about "this," but Mike cut me short.
"Ease into it," he told me. "We have to be careful."
So we sat and drank Hank’s vile coffee. He and Dave exchanged knowing glances with Mike. They stuck to small talk. Hank and Dave worked at some feed store down the road. Apparently that paid enough for the trailer rental and other necessities, but little else. Dave complained that his computer had quit on him. The reception on his television sucked and he couldn’t get his MTV. And then there was that business about being thrown out of Yoshiwara’s.
Yoshiwara’s was up an upscale strip club in Portland, the kind you wouldn’t expect to admit people like Hank and Dave. But they’d gotten in somehow, and made their way to the stage, where the dancers were supposed to bump and grind and shake their tits at guys who stuffed bills in their garters. At Yoshiwara’s, that meant at least $20 bills, not singles. Only Hank had thought it was clever to stick a TAT brand roach trap in the garter of one girl, and leer, "Hey, ever hear of tit for tat?"
With Crystal Method’s "Busy Child" playing at full blast, Hank hadn’t expected the girl to be able to do anything about it. Maybe she used a body language code, because a couple of bouncers closed in almost immediately and hustled Hank and Dave out. Hank told the story, putting his own spin on it, but his account was as transparent as glass, even with Dave backing it up.
"Just like at the airport," Dave complained. "Why does everybody always overreact so?"
I was getting tired of this line of conversation. I’d already heard a similar story from Mike a while back about how Hank and Dave had been thrown out of a Hooters restaurant for saying things like "Silicone Valley" and "The hooters are not what they seem."
"What are we here for?" I finally asked him.
"To see Ingrid. And Charmin."
"Ingrid’s the rat lady," Hank said. "Charmin lives with her."
"And Charmin’s Supergirl," Dave added. "Only she don’t know it."
Ingrid must have known we were coming. She was standing on the stoop of her trailer. She must have been around 60. Nothing to look at, but her face might have been pleasant if she hadn’t worn such a sour expression. There was a rat sitting on her right shoulder. It didn’t seem happy to see us, either.
"Didn’t I tell you two to keep away from here?" she scowled at Hank and Dave. She looked at Mike and shook her head. Then she looked at me. She didn’t seem any more kindly disposed to me than the others, but something changed just the same.
"I suppose she’ll have to learn sometime," she muttered to herself as she turned and stepped inside her trailer. A moment later she came back out, with Charmin at her side.
She was a stunner, all right. Blonde hair, blue eyes. A body to die for. But it was as if she didn’t seem to have any idea how beautiful she was. She was wearing just jeans and a tank top, yet she didn’t seem to be flaunting herself. She seemed totally oblivious to the effect she must be having. Oh, and she too had a rat sitting on her shoulder.
"Hi, guys," she said to Hank and Dave, as if they were friends.
Ingrid’s face had a look of mixed distaste and helplessness.
"Well, you all know I’m Ingrid," she said. "This is Bozo," she added, glancing at the rat on her shoulder. "That’s Bimbo there with Charmin."
She looked at Mike and me.
"Up to no good, I imagine, if you’re mixed up with Hank and Dave."
"Hey," interjected Hank, who’d kept his mouth shut up to now. "We’re only trying to help. We could make some real money for Charmin. For college, you know."
Ingrid gestured to Charmin to go back inside. Charmin went. Then she turned to Hank and Dave.
"You two ever been to college?"
Hank reluctantly shook his head. So did Dave.
"Thought so. What about the rest of you?"
Mike just looked embarrassed.
"Portland State," I said.
"You ought to know better," she told me. "What do you see in these goofs?"
I didn’t see anything in Hank and Dave. As for Mike…. Well, it was complicated. It wasn’t just the sf, but his warped sense of humor.
I’d first encountered that when I met him at a local con in Portland. It was back in 1984, the year everyone had dreaded since George Orwell. The world wasn’t as bad as Orwell had predicted, but it was pretty bad. And here Mike was doing this stand-up about a character called Government Leech, who was some sort of aide to President Reagan…..
Reagan: Well, Leech, how did you spend your summer vacation?
Leech: Terrific, Chief. I started my own business.
Reagan: Oh? What kind of business?
Leech: A truck rental agency. In Beirut.
Reagan: Make a lot of money on it?
Leech: Well, not really, Chief. I rented out all these trucks, but nobody ever brought ‘em back. I don’t know what happened…..
Talk about bad taste! But the guy had me in stitches. Of course, I was pretty young at the time, just turned 18, and maybe I was overly impressed by what seemed daringly sick. But his brand of humor has worked on me ever since. Like, lately, he’s had these routines with George Bush as King Solomon and chopping the baby in two, or Martha Stewart advising how to give a blow job to a federal investigator…..
"You don’t really know what kind of things they’re up to, do you?" Ingrid’s voice brought me back to the present.
"Not exactly," I admitted.
"Not at all. I think you’d better talk to them before you talk to me… or Charmin."
It was getting on towards dinnertime. Deer Meadow was so far off the beaten track that we didn’t even have the option on chinking in at Hank and Dave’s trailer – no Chinese place to order from. Not even a pizza joint.
That left Hap’s Diner, a greasy spoon down the road run by a slatternly woman named Irene. Irene seemed to be having trouble with the lights in the place – which was just as well, since the food didn’t bear close inspection. That also made it hard to examine the Polaroid shots taken by Hank that constituted the evidence in the case.
"You see here she’s lifting our car," Hank said of one of them.
"This is really a great shot," Mike commented.
"I don’t know," I put in. "Maybe they have it counterweighted, like that trick vehicle at Universal City that anybody can lift."
"Well, what about this?" Dave chimed in, handing me a picture of Charmin holding what appeared to be a boulder over her head.
"Where’d you get the balsa?" I responded.
Unfazed, Dave handed me yet another Polaroid, in which Charmin appeared to be suspended in mid-air.
"With a leap like that, she could definitely try out for the Dallas cheerleaders," I conceded. "Might pay her way through college."
"They pay cheerleaders in The Dalles?" Hank wondered.
"You talkin’ about that little girl that learned to fly?" interrupted an older gent at the other end of the counter.
"You’ve seen her fly?" I asked.
"I’ve heard about her," said the older gent. "She came to town about the same time that other little girl got killed."
I tried to get more out of him, but all he admitted knowing for sure was the difference between shit and shinola.
Hank got the conversation moving again.
"We didn’t get a picture of it, but you saw those bullet holes on our car, right?"
"Why would I want to see a picture of bullet holes on your car?
"Well, did you see they were bunched to the left and the right?"
I hadn’t noticed, to tell the truth. But I made as if I had.
"In between, that’s where Charmin was standing."
I’d had about enough. I glanced over at Mike. He hadn’t said much for a while. He was just staring at the Polaroids spread out on the counter. I took him aside, walked him over to a far corner of the diner.
"Is there a punch line to all this," I asked him. "Or was that it?"
"I told you it sounded crazy," he said. "But I swear it’s for real. Haven’t you got any faith in humanity?"
"I’ve got plenty of faith in humanity. Just not in these guys. And I’m starting to wonder about you."
"Would you believe a video of Charmin doing all that stuff? Lifting cars and throwing rocks and flying?"
"You got one?"
"No. But if you could lend Hank and Dave your camcorder and a few cassettes….."
So that’s what this was all about.
"To make what? A porn tape. You want to get me mixed up in that kind of thing?"
"It won’t be porn. You think a girl like Charmin’s going to put out for the likes of Hank and Dave?"
"I wasn’t thinking that she’d volunteer."
"Don’t you understand? They can’t force her. Nobody can."
"She could be a black belt and they could still slip her some ecstasy, Or rohypnol. Or just get her drunk."
"She’s immune to all that," Mike insisted, "Anyway, it’s got nothing to do with martial arts. She’s Supergirl, I’m telling you. You’re just going to have to see for yourself. Back at the Fat Trout."
Mike motioned for Hank and Dave to come along.
"I’ve got a heartburn like a solar flare," Dave complained.
"You talkin’ about that little girl that learned to fly?" the older gent called out as we left Hap’s.
Mike and I went to see Charmin, but Ingrid told us that she was with the Beasley boys down in Stevenson. It seemed that the Beasley boys had an auto repair and body shop there, and Charmin had a knack for working on cars, so they’d taken her under their wing.
"Just as well, I expect," she said. "Gives us a chance to talk. And you’d better have a good story. Hanging out with low-lifes like Hank and Dave. They think it’s fun to throw rocks at her chest and stuff. She thinks it’s fun, too, Doesn’t know any better."
Bozo was sitting on her lap as she petted him. There were a few other rats that seemed to have the run of the trailer. Like Bozo and Bimbo, they weren’t gray like sewer rats or flat white like lab rats. White with colored bands or patches.
"I’ve always favored four-legged rats over the two-legged variety, if you get my drift," Ingrid continued. "Bimbo helped keep some of them away from Charmin, but she’s made her mistakes just the same. Doesn’t matter now since the accident."
"Charmin’s been in an accident?" I asked. "I thought she…."
"Oh, she didn’t get hurt," Ingrid responded. "Quite the contrary. It wasn’t exactly an accident, either, except for it not turning out the way Derotha expected."
It seemed that Charmin had been making time with Derotha’s boyfriend Elwood, and she got so mad that she’d stolen a bottle of acid from the high school chem lab and thrown it at her rival. She turned and ran, which was a good thing, because there was a big flash of light and some kind of explosion that might have caused her serious injury if she’d stuck around to see the results of her handiwork.
"You see, nothing had ever hurt Charmin since the day I found her up in the hills. Never sick a day in her life. I always figured it had to do with this thing she was wearing when I found her. Some kind of metallic mesh around her waist, only so thin it was like a second skin. And it grew with her somehow, stretching even thinner. By the time she got breasts and the boys really started to notice her, it looked kind of like an abstract tattoo.
"Well, after the accident, it was gone, and I was afraid for her that night, somebody else with a grudge coming after her. Only it turned out that whatever she was before, she’s a hell of a lot more of it now. She ripped the door off the trailer coming in – we figured it must have been loose, and she just yanked too hard because she was upset.
"Only, morning after, she woke up to find herself floating against the ceiling. Then she discovered how strong she really was, got into lifting boulders and stuff. I told her to be careful with things and not to show off. She minded me most of the time, at least enough not to do any more damage. But I guess word’s getting out."
Elwood had played a part in that. He'd gotten it into his head that it was Charmin who had attacked Derotha; he wanted to square things with his girl anyway, seeing as how Charmin hadn’t put out for him that much. So he’d come after her with a gun. It was just her bad luck that she happened to be passing by Hank’s Dodge when he opened up on her. Hank and Dave saw it all. Elwood, after the shock of seeing Charmin unharmed by his slugs, had just slunk away. But he couldn't help talking…..
Mike opened his mouth for the first time. "Told you."
I tried to ignore him.
"One good thing that’s come of it," Ingrid continued, as if Mike hadn’t been there. "She’s not causing trouble with the local boys any more. They can’t get into her."
"What do you mean, they can’t get into her?"
"I mean they can’t get into her. She wants them to, but they can’t. Word got around that she wasn’t easy any more. That was the way they put it. Didn’t want people to think there was anything missing in their manhood. So if that’s what you’ve come for, you’re out of luck."
"That’s not what I came for," I said, trying to sound sincere. And it was true. In any case, Charmin must be jail bait – 16, 17 at the most. But one look at her and… well, I’m only human.
I left it to Mike to explain the video project because, frankly, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. It didn’t make much sense to Ingrid, either. But to the extent that it did, she didn’t like it.
"You want Charmin to show off for a bunch of freaks?" she protested.
"Only on tape," Mike insisted. "Nobody will know who she is or where she’s from."
"Somebody might recognize her, just the same."
"Well, they could disguise her. Give her a wig, maybe even a mask. Hey, they could call her the Masked Avenger. I think the fans would go for that."
"And these fans would pay to see it?"
"Well, just figure what they must have paid that call girl in Vegas to dress up as Supergirl and have sex with dozens of them."
"Charmin wouldn’t…. anyway, she couldn’t."
"Of course not. This would be strictly G-rated. Like I said, flying around and lifting cars and stuff like that. Well, maybe some of it would be topless. But like I said, with the mask and all, nobody would recognize her."
"These org people wouldn’t pay as much for that kind of thing as they paid for the hooker, would they?"
"Maybe not, but enough to get Charmin into college. You said before she really wants to go to college."
"Mechanical engineering. Not the usual major for a girl, but then she always was a tomboy. And, Lord, I’d see to it myself if I could, but I can’t."
"Couldn’t she get a scholarship?" I asked.
This video thing was making me feel a bit queasy, and I had to say something, even if it could queer the deal. Mike shot me a dirty look, but Ingrid got things back on track.
"Well, she certainly deserves it. Honor student, straight As in science. But there’d be a problem with the application forms."
"What kind of a problem?" I wondered.
"Charmin doesn’t exist. Legally, that is. No birth certificate, no record of adoption, no Social Security number. Like I said, I just found her as a baby up in the hills and took her in. Never had any children of my own, and she was so sweet… well, it just broke my heart to see her abandoned there, and that was before I knew she wasn’t of this Earth."
"Nobody ever asked about her?"
"Well, that’s the advantage of living in a place like Deer Meadow, if there is one. We had a murder here not long before she came. Girl lived in the same trailer as Hank and Dave. Some FBI men came out to investigate; one of them just disappeared into thin air and the other never came back. There was other strange things happened here. Like we’d been touched by the Devilish One. People didn’t ask questions. They still don’t. We don’t have any police here, and the sheriff’s men are all crooks, so nobody wants to talk to them anyway."
"Why would the FBI be looking into a local murder?"
"Something to do with drugs, I expect. The sheriff was up to his neck in it. He got sent up a few years back, but it didn’t make any difference. Funny thing is, we never had the same kind of trouble here at the Fat Trout after Charmin settled in. It was like she had a charm to her… so you really think you could charm enough money for college out of these org freaks?"
"That’s what Mike says."
"The thing about these people is that they really want to believe," Mike explained. "They think there really is a Supergirl. Like in the Weekly World News, diverting asteroids heading for Earth, saving bridges from collapse, that kind of thing."
I had to repress a chuckle. This week’s headlines in the Weekly World News had been "World’s Smartest Ape Goes to College" and "Nine Month Old Baby Gets Black Belt in Karate." Still, you had to wonder. Charmin couldn’t be the only one of her kind…
"Well, I wouldn’t trust Hank and Dave with a wooden nickel. What’s to keep them from just taking the money and running off? Assuming they can get it. Why don’t you or Mike shoot this thing?"
"The thing is, I’ve been working overtime lately, so all I can contribute is a camcorder. And Mike works split shifts that keep him busy half of Saturday, Hank and Dave are right out here. Charmin knows them, She even seems to like them."
I was just making excuses. Mike could have done the job himself, but the thing about Mike is that he’s an instigator. He doesn’t really like to do things, just set other people up to do them. I don’t think he ever really wrote anything for Polish Wonder Stories, before or after Hank and Dave failed to hold up their end of the project. Same thing here.
As for myself, the whole idea of the video embarrassed me. Which is why I was trying to put the best feet forward on behalf of Hank and Dave. Even though my stomach was rumbling. Talk about Dave and his solar flare heartburn. Something wasn’t going down right, and it wasn’t just the food at Hap’s Diner.
"She likes everybody," Ingrid sighed. "Sharp as a tack about school and cars and all, but she doesn’t have the sense of one of my rats. And like I said, I’ll take one of my rats any day over the two-legged kind."
Bozo had climbed up on her shoulder again, and I could swear the rat was staring right at me. I felt the sudden need to take some kind of responsibility. "Look," I said. "Dave’s computer quit on him, and the only way to reach these AURG people is on the Internet. Right, Mike?"
Mike nodded: "They don’t use real names, let alone give out addresses and phones."
"So just have people here make sure they don’t get near a computer. I’ll review the tape, I’ll contact the AURG people, I’ll handle the deal. Here’s where you can reach me."
I handed her a business card from my wallet.
It was just then that we heard a small truck pulling up outside.
"That must be Charmin." Ingrid said.
Indeed it was, as we saw when we stepped outside. She was riding in a pickup truck marked Beasley & Sons. The driver was a handsome man in his 20’s.
"Hi guys," she said to Mike and me as she got out of the truck.
"Hi," I said, waving at her. Mike seemed to be speechless, and she wasn’t even his type – his type making Anna Nicole Smith look anorexic.
"This is Chad," she added, nodding to the driver. "He’s really sweet."
Chad grinned like the canary that swallowed the cat.
"We’re restoring this 49 Chevy pickup. Chad and me and Lance and Travis. It’s the coolest thing. And he’s letting me borrow his Harley. I promised I’ll be careful with it. Isn’t that right, Chad?"
Chad grinned again, "You know what you’re in for if you aren’t. Extra hours."
"Don’t you wish," Charmin responded, with obvious relish.
Something didn’t add up here. Chad and Charmin were obviously flirting, and yet Ingrid had told me,,,,
My train of thought was interrupted as Charmin stepped to the rear of the truck, and lifted out the Harley as effortlessly as if it had been a Tonka toy. She set it gently on the ground in front of the trailer. It was the first time I’d actually witnessed her perform such a feat.
"Didn’t I tell you not to do that kind of thing in public?" Ingrid cautioned her.
"But Mama, everybody here already knows. And I’m always really careful in town and down at Stevenson. There’s never anybody in the shop but the boys when I lift engines and stuff. Ain’t that right, Chad?"
"Right as rain. You got nothing to worry about, with Charmin. She’s really good at the shop. She’s really good, period… Hey, see you tomorrow, Sharm. We’ll get that engine running smooth as silk. And don’t forget to bring Carl’s rod. We’ll take all the dings out. Make it look good as new."
As Chad pulled out of the Fat Trout, it dawned on me. Tomorrow was Sunday, Who wanted to fix engines and do body work on a Sunday? Unless maybe it also involved another kind of body work?
I didn’t press the matter. My job right now was to explain about the video to Charmin. I made a thorough job of it, because I didn’t trust Hank and Dave any more than Ingrid. So I laid it out for her. She was going to be the one in control, not them. She should keep hold of the camcorder when they weren’t actually using it, hold on to the cassettes, too. If they wanted her to do anything she wasn’t comfortable with, that was it, end of story. She should call me right away – I gave her my business card. If the video actually did work out to her satisfaction, she should call me. I’d take care of the rest.
I figured that would be the end of it. It was getting late; time for Mike and me to head back to Kalama. Only then…
"Hey, Jeffrey, want to go for a ride?"
"On Chad’s hog. It’s really cool."
I didn’t like motorcycles. Never rode one in my life. And I hated the kind of bikers who came through our neighborhood on weekends, gunning their engines rather than letting them idle at the stoplight down the block, then roaring off at full blast when the light turned green. "It’s all a form of intimidation," Mike once opined.
Just now, it looked like Ingrid would come to my rescue.
"It’s late, Charmin," she said. "These gentlemen need to get home."
"Not that late. You keep Mike company. I’m going to give Jeffrey here a ride."
And with that, she grabbed my hand, hopped onto the Harley, and practically flipped me onto the seat behind her.
You’ve seen bikers barreling down the road with their biker chicks hanging on behind. Well, here I was hanging onto a biker chick as she took off through the darkness up some rutted road – more like a trail – that ran up into the hills above the Fat Trout.
Charmin knew how to handle the Harley, no doubt about that. But it was a rough ride, like on a bucking bronco, I guessed, never having ridden a bronco. Closest I’d ever come to it was some ride at Great Adventure. No comparison, really, As the cycle bounced over the ruts, I was hanging on for dear life. And there was only one thing – well, two things – to grab onto.
She didn’t seem to mind; it was obvious she’d planned it that way, although I didn’t know why. Her breasts felt marvelous, so firm they hardly jiggled at all – which was a real plus here, because otherwise I’d might have lost my grip and been thrown off. All the same, I was getting sick to my stomach and might have done something a lot more embarrassing if Charmin hadn’t finally pulled up a spot that, in the glare of the headlight, didn’t look any different from any other,
She let me off, then dismounted herself, I was wobbly on my feet, and decided to take a seat on the nearest rock.
"This is where Ingrid found me," Charmin said. "I must have been only two years old. I don’t remember, but she showed me."
"You haven’t been quite straight with her, have you?"
"She’s been good to me, as good as any mother could. But there are things she just doesn’t understand."
"You and Chad…"
"And Lance and Travis."
Maybe I should have been shocked, Instead, I just asked how. After the "accident" Ingrid had told me about.
"Mama didn’t hold anything back, did she? But she never got much of an education. See, as soon as I found out it was aqua regia that girl threw at me, I knew that mesh must have had gold in it, even though it didn’t look like gold. All I had to do was get some, and the boys were happy to oblige me. They’re so sweet!"
"You… with all three of them?"
"Oh, yeah. But only with them. Everybody else in Skamania County is off limits. See, when I still had the mesh, I was horny all the time, and I was fucking anything that moved. Everybody got to squeeze the Charmin. But now I can control the gold instead of the gold controlling me. And the thing with the boys is that they really understand me. They know that when I put on the gold, one man isn’t enough for me. But they aren’t the least bit jealous, ‘cause they know there’s plenty of me to go around."
"Should you be telling me…"
"Oh, you’re not from around here, so you don’t count. I could never tell Ingrid how happy the boys make me, but I can tell you. Sometimes they take turns, sometimes we make it a foursome. Three pairs of hands, stroking me and squeezing me all over, and that’s just the start. Chad will suck one breast while Lance does the other and Travis licks my clit. Or I’ll have Lance in my pussy and Travis in my mouth while Chad shoots on my breasts. We’ve tried just about everything. It’s all been so heavenly."
She sounded like some jaded porn star handing out a line to the lonely men beating off to her pictures in skin magazines, except that she seemed totally sincere.
"They really love me, too, and I love them," Charmin said, "When I started taking an interest in cars, they took it as the most natural thing in the world. No macho bullshit. They started teaching me everything they know – they didn’t just send me over to NAPA to pick up a timing gear kit or anything. They’re talking about taking me into the business, if I can’t go to college. They’ve had it all to themselves since their father…"
I guess something bad must have happened to their father. Suddenly changing the subject, she remarked, "There’s a terrific view from the ridge up there."
I couldn’t make it out myself. She must have had terrific night vision.
"Come on," she said, reaching out to me.
She grabbed me around the waist and flew me up to the ridge. Just like that.
It really was a terrific view. There was a full moon, and you could dimly make out the forest and fields all the way down to the Columbia River, even some of the lights from cars and trucks on I-84 across the way. There was a red glow in the sky to the Southeast, from a forest fire that had been threatening The Dalles.
Charmin had lain down on the rough ground. She was gazing into the sky.
"Do you ever watch the stars?" she asked. "I do. I keep wondering which one I come from."
Funny, I read about the stars a lot, but for some reason I hadn’t looked at them in quite a while. So I demurred.
"The real estate within 100 light years or so doesn’t look very promising."
"There’s 55 Cancri. Two giant planets, but they’re in nearly circular orbits and there’s room for an Earthlike planet in the habitable zone."
Before I knew it, Charmin was off and running about cosmology and the origin of the universe. Stuff like colliding branes versus the standard model. I thought I’d been keeping up with the science news, but she was way ahead of me.
Maybe I was jealous of her knowledge and enthusiasm. Anyway, I started going on gloomily about the heat death of the universe, about how everything would end in cold and darkness, just like in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. She couldn’t figure how I could worry so about what might happen to the universe 100 billion years down the road.
"You got a wife? Girlfriend?" she suddenly asked.
"Not any more."
"All this talk about a dying universe. You’re just dying to get laid."
Now there are two versions of what happened next. One of them is true and one of them isn’t. What you have to understand is that, in light of later events, it doesn’t matter which is which.
In the first version, which is first only because it’s the one you want to read, Charmin and I fucked our brains out on that ridge. I didn’t care that she was underage, or how many boyfriends she had, or anything like that. Neither did she.
The Catholic Church has this theory of Invincible Ignorance to allow for the possibility of otherwise good men being saved even without embracing the true faith. Charmin had a kind of Invincible Innocence about her. She was entirely without guile, without any hidden agenda, without any calculation.
Cindy, my ex, once brought home a tape of The Story of O. It was supposed to be an erotic classic. I thought it was about as erotic as the Mr. Bill Show. Watching people being mean to each other was supposed to turn me on?
There was nothing mean about Charmin, only the giving and taking of pleasure, which to her were one and the same. She had this kind of scarf she wore, lined with gold foil, but nothing else, once she’d shucked the jeans and tank top. She stood there, bathed in the moonlight, posing for me. I hesitated for only a moment, then took off my clothes as fast as I was able and stepped forward to embrace her.
Did I mention she was really tall? That was an extra turn-on for me. I could hold my arms around her and look into her eyes and deep kiss her without scrunching down, while feeling her magnificent breasts pressing against by chest and my cock against her damp pussy. I worked my way down, licking and sucking and biting her breasts, kissing my way down her belly, drinking the nectar that flowed from her cunt and smelled like honey and wildflowers, nibbling on her clit.
She responded in kind. We did everything. The only conventional part was at the end, when she lay down and let me enter her missionary fashion. As I said, the ground on that ridge was rough, but it wouldn’t hurt her no matter how hard I pounded her into it. It had never been like this with Cindy. I was surrounded by goodness; I felt a profound sense of rightness, even in the height of passion. Charmin was all the goodness of the world, all the goodness of the universe. There was an explosion of goodness as we came together.
That’s the first version, and even that has two sub-versions: either it did or it didn’t dawn on me that I must have left her still horny; that I couldn’t possibly have satisfied her the way the Beasleys did. In the second version, I was the perfect White Knight, turning down her kind offer even after she explained that, since I was from out of the county, she wouldn’t be violating her compact with the Beasley boys. They’d even have gotten a kick out of hearing about her extracurricular activity, she insisted.
In both versions, Mike had given up and left by the time we got back to the Fat Trout. It was past midnight, after all. Charmin flew me back to Kalama – that was a wild ride – and found a deserted street where she could land and drop me off. I drove home, woke up late Sunday, got the camcorder, drove back to Kalama, and left it with Mike to take up to Deer Meadow.
Like I said, it doesn’t matter which version is true. Except maybe that one makes me look even worse than the other. You’ll see.
I didn’t hear anything further from Deer Meadow over the next week. Neither did Mike. I was on the phone with him several times, but all he had for me were new routines like Tabby Lime, the Third Cat, selling counterfeit flea collars in postwar Vienna; or Rod Steiger as the Wizard of Oz.
"So is anything happening with Government Leech?" I asked him at one point.
"Oh, he’s retired," Mike said. "No more summer business ventures. Not after those flying schools last year."
Same old Mike. But he did have some "good" news, he told me: a girl he’d met at the Office Depot in Kelso. Good for him, maybe, not necessarily good for her. That’s how it is with fetishes. In theory, it was good for fat girls to have somebody to love them. But all he’d ever loved was the fat, at least up to now.
Then on Saturday night, there was a flash on the TV news about a power failure at the RSG Forestry Products mill in Kalama. Further details were reported Sunday morning: the security guard had been found drunk and, after hours of grilling, had owned up that he’d been plied with beer by two men and an awesome young woman who’d snuck into the mill to shoot a scene for a porn film.
Why anyone wanted to shoot a porn film at a lumber mill, he couldn’t imagine. But they’d promised him a copy, which along with a case of Bud was persuasion enough for him to let them do their thing. It sounded like they’d powered up one of the saws around 10:20 p.m., but shortly after that there was a short or something and the power went out. It turned out that a main cable had somehow been sliced by a circular saw blade, which was heavily damaged and covered with some sort of perfume.
Nobody but the security guard was around by the time police arrived, although the trio had arrived in a beat-up old Dodge and there was only one road in and out of the place. No sign of the Dodge had been found either. The guard didn’t remember the license number, and his descriptions of the men were pretty vague – one pimply, one fat. The girl? Well, she was blonde, and "built like a brick shithouse." That would have dated the guard, even if the white hair and lined face hadn’t.
It was all a mystery to the police, and it was a mystery to me, too, but not for the same reason. What were Hank and Dave and Charmin doing at that mill? They could get plenty of footage of her flying and performing feats of super-strength in the hills above Deer Meadow where nobody would notice. And why wasn’t she in disguise? Most of all, if Hank and Dave were changing the script, why hadn’t she called me?
I decided to head for Deer Meadow. I wanted to bring Mike along, but he was busy with his new girlfriend. So I was left to my own devices. I remembered the way; I’m good at that. And it was a quicker trip without the detour to Kalama. I could even take I-84 up the Oregon side and cross the river at Bonneville.
There was no sign of Hank or Dave, or their Dodge, at the Fat Trout. That was a bad sign. Ingrid and Charmin weren’t in, either. I tried the manager, Carl Rodd. He was a weary looking old man with a leathery face and wearing a faded plaid shirt. He allowed that he hadn’t seen Hank and Dave for days, but that they owed him rent and if they never came back it was good riddance. Ingrid must be down to church, he thought. Charmin he hadn’t seen for a day or two.
"She’s a real angel," he volunteered. "Sometimes I wonder if she’s a guardian angel. We haven’t had anything like the Teresa Banks business or the Chalfonts…"
He hesitated a moment as if he’d said something he shouldn’t. I didn’t know why and I still don’t. I found out later that Teresa Banks was the girl killed in that blue trailer but I never got a clue about the Chalfonts; even Ingrid wouldn’t talk about them.
"I know what some people say about her, but she’s no low-life. She’s been real good to everybody here. Worked last Sunday to take the dings out of my car; polished it up, too, and didn’t even charge me. Then this week she’s been out a lot with Hank and Dave; now she’s got to be a saint to help them out with anything."
I couldn’t argue with that, and I didn’t have to, because just then Charmin called out to me, Carl waved to her, and I was off running in her direction.
"I need to speak to you," I said in a low voice. "About the trouble you’re in."
"Sure, Jeffrey. What trouble? Oh, you mean…."
She started laughing.
Ingrid would be another hour getting back from church. That gave us time to talk, in the seclusion of Ingrid’s trailer.
"What were you doing at that lumber mill? And where are Hank and Dave?"
"Oh, I had to take them to Longview. Car and all. I would have flown them, but it’s kind of hard to balance a car on my arms or avoid damaging the undercarriage, especially with two guys inside and one weighs a lot more than the other. So I sort of floated the car down the river, held it up just enough to keep it dry inside and not flood the engine."
"Where are they now?"
"Seattle, I think. They’re headed for Spokane. They’ll have to lay low for a while. But they said they’d be in touch. It was the least I could do."
"Well, it was really my fault they were there in the first place. We were doing this shot with me tied to a log, and…"
"Tied to a log? I thought this video was supposed to be just flying and weightlifting, right?"
"But that’s so dull. And they said the guys they were making the video for have some pretty strange tastes, And they’d pay a lot more if we catered to them."
"Didn’t I say for you to call me if they asked you to do anything that made you feel uncomfortable."
"But it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, Jeffrey. I even thought some of it up myself. Like the thing with the thermite."
"Fred Bamman showed it to us once. He’s the chemistry teacher at Skamania High. Just a demonstration; he didn’t want us messing around with it. But when Hank said these org people would be turned on by me showing off my invulnerability, I thought it would be cool to try it out. All I had to do was fit the pot between my breasts and set it off."
"You’re that invulnerable?"
"Oh yeah. Lance accidentally dropped a welding torch on me once at the shop. Didn’t hurt a bit. In fact, it felt good. So now we’ve turned it into kind of a game. Sometimes when nobody else is around, I’ll work naked, and if I get grease over me, one of the boys will burn it off. ‘Course, they’ll go for my breasts and cunt even if there isn’t any grease there, Makes me hot in more ways than one, and if they keep the torch on my clit I’ll come big time. But I have to cool down a while before we can fuck, or we’d do it more often.
"Anyway, I came up with the idea of thermite for the video. It was really cool. Well, really hot. Dave had the camcorder positioned just right for a close-up panning shot as the molten steel ran down my belly and into my pussy. And when it hit my clit, wow! The only trouble was the steel was so hot that the light from it overloaded the camera and you could hardly see me on the tape at all. Should have done it with klieg lights and a better camera with more zoom capacity."
I couldn’t believe she was talking so casually about letting herself be exploited for the benefit of a bunch of perverts. But there was more to come – stuff that would have seemed funny if it weren’t so disgusting.
It was painful to listen to. She was a goddess, and here she was talking casually about turning herself into a freak show for people she’d never met and probably never would. Most likely a bunch of creeps who couldn’t get a life and had nothing to do with their nights but beat off to S&M porn.
"Hank and Dave wanted to get some footage of me bathing in fire, but they couldn’t quite get it right," Charmin related. "They tried gasoline, but that went up too fast, what with nothing but me for it to catch on, so they ended up with only a few seconds worth of footage. They were talking about napalm, but they didn’t know where to get any. Thought I could steal it for them from a military base, but I wasn’t about to do that, even if I’d known where to go.
"I told them I could do a fiery striptease for them, if they could find some old clothes for me. They came up with some stuff from a bin, not much to look at, torn shirts and jeans and stuff. But there was also this novelty underwear made from some kind of plastic or rubber; they figured it could make for a two stage striptease. I tried to explain to them that it wasn’t a good idea, but they wouldn’t listen. So they got this footage of thick black smoke from the burning rubber. You couldn’t see much of me. Stank like hell, too.
"Then they had this idea of sneaking me into the Portland Zoo and getting the lions and tigers to attack me, but by the time the zoo closes it’s too dark. Anyway, I didn’t want to hurt the poor animals, break their teeth and claws, you know. Same when they talked about finding a mountain lion or a pack of wolves or wild dogs. They were even looking for a junkyard dog, and that gave them the idea of having me stand in front of a speeding car or truck and turn that into junk – said some fans in England go for that. Only it didn’t seem to occur to them they’d end up with a dead driver. Even if we staged it as a runaway, we’d have to steal the car. Same thing with tying me to the railroad tracks; didn’t want to cause a train wreck.
"That’s what led to the business at the mill. Seems there used to be movies where the villain would tie the damsel in distress to the tracks, or to a log in a sawmill. Of course, we’d be trespassing, but I didn’t think we’d be doing any real damage, and Hank and Dave had been trying so hard, and they were so sure they could help me with college if only they could get the right footage to sell to these AURG people.
"Well, we took care of the guard, and Dave set up the camera while Hank tied me to the log. They had the right lighting from the ceiling fixtures, and just right angle, with the focus on my pussy as the log moved towards the saw. It was a good circular blade, too, with carbide-tipped teeth. I knew I’d have to hold onto the log real tight with my arms and legs to keep from flying off when I reached the saw; the ropes were just for show. And when those carbide teeth hit my clit, I was in Heaven; I don’t know which was screaming louder, me or the blade. But I should have realized the mounting wasn’t made to withstand the resistance of my cunt; suddenly the blade was flying through the air and it cut the power cables and I guess you heard the rest."
I’d heard the rest, all right, and I’d heard about enough. But she wasn’t finished yet.
"Hank and Dave really tried hard on that last one; they were finally getting the hang of it. But I guess I’ll have to work with somebody else now. You know anybody in the area does music videos, that kind of thing? I’ve got this other idea about being roasted over a barbecue pit, like a pig on a spit, only they couldn’t get a spit through me. Maybe set up a Lazy Susan kind of thing, with me revolving above the barbecue and my juices sizzling as they hit the coals. And rig a hidden fuel line so every now and then flames would shoot up and lick my cunt and make me come. You got any ideas about that?"
I shook my head. "Not my area of expertise," I told her. About then, Ingrid came back from church, and this particular line of conversation would have been over in any case. I made some excuse about work I’d taken home for the weekend and had to finish that day, and got the hell out of there.
I couldn’t get hold of Mike; his phone was busy all the time. Maybe he was leaving it off the hook. I sent him an e-mail about these AURG people. I’d checked out their web site, and it seemed to be devoted just to gossip about superheroine stories some of them were writing. You had to register with a screen name and a password just to get that much.
"Think Orwell. Outer Party versus Inner Party," he e-mailed me back. And he gave me another screen name and password. Must have been the one Hank had overheard on the 22 bus. Or maybe he’d really been looking at somebody’s laptop from the seat behind him, because I couldn’t figure how he’d have gotten both otherwise.
I entered "Titanic" and "Iceberg," and found myself at an entirely different AURG site, filled with cryptic and furtive messages about visitations from some planet called Velor, intercourse – in several senses – between Velorians and Terrans, and something called enhancement for which evidently many were called but few were chosen. Hank and Dave must have simply assumed that it was a prostitute who showed up at their shindig in Vegas, because there was no indication of that here – their messages indicated that they actually had enjoyed the favors of a Velorian.
Either these Inner AURG people were hopelessly insane, or they really were in contact with aliens like Charmin. Older and wiser heads, perhaps, who could give her counsel. She needed it, but I couldn’t help her. Neither could anyone else in Deer Meadow. She didn’t have the footage Hank and Dave had shot; they must have taken it with them to Spokane, or wherever. Even if it wasn’t much, they might sell it to somebody, and attract enough notice to draw the scandal sheets to Deer Meadow like flies to carrion. If Charmin managed to find better collaborators for a video of her own creation, it would be even worse. She wouldn’t understand the consequences until too late. Her invincible innocence was betraying her.
What to do? As far as I could tell, the Inner AURG members were all Terrans. Would any of them forward an SOS? Even if they did, would anyone from Velor take it seriously enough to respond? They seemed to want to keep a low profile, that was obvious: if any of them were actually on Earth, they didn’t want the general public to know it. That could give me an edge. I entered a message, supposedly from Titanic.
Top Emergency, Orphaned Velorian in distress. Critical danger of exposure.
Nothing happened for a minute or two. Then the Inner AURG message board blinked out and an Error message appeared on my screen: Internet Explorer has unexpectedly quit, When I rebooted and tried to get back to the site as Titanic, it was Access Denied.
I’d attracted somebody’s attention all right. The die was cast. And I felt a sense of dread. I didn’t know where these people were, but they knew where I was. Nobody has any privacy in cyberspace.
A day passed. I’d expected an e-mail, but nothing showed up in my box. Instead I got a phone call. A woman’s voice. She sounded all business. Nothing like Charmin.
"We’ve got to talk."
"Let’s just say… higher authority. I’m what you’ve been trying to reach me through the AURG. As I said, we’ve got to talk. Meet me at the Kalama Cemetery at midnight."
"Where do you get that stuff? Rockford Files reruns? Yoshiwara’s, 8 p.m."
There wasn’t any Yoshiwara. Never had been. The guy who started the place got the name from the night club in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where the false Maria did an erotic dance and drove men crazy. But the name attracted Japanese tourists, who didn’t know the story. Locals already knew the dancers were first class.
Higher Authority turned out to be another blonde goddess. But stern looking. Not a trace of innocence. She glided to my table at Yoshiwara’s, where I had been paying rather desultory attention to the dancers while frequently glancing towards the door. She sat down without a word. Then, out of the blue:
"She thinks you’re cute."
"The Red Peri."
I glanced towards the stage. There was a redhead there, looking my way. She seemed to be doing more of a modern dance than the usual routine. But she was down to her G-string, which was all that mattered in this place.
"They’re supposed to look at somebody. Anyway, I didn’t come here for her or any of the other airheads. Just seemed like a safer place than some cemetery."
"She’s working her way through graduate school. Getting her Master’s in cultural anthropology. Things are not always what they seem. You may want to bear that in mind."
The redhead was still looking at me. But then some guy by the stage stuffed a twenty in her G-string and she leaned over to shake her breasts in his face. Yeah, there was a study in cultural anthropology.
"Cut the crap," I told Higher Authority. "Are you here to help?"
"How would you define ‘help?’"
"Advice. Counsel. From one of her own kind. She doesn’t entirely understand our culture, and how it relates to her behavior. She could get… hurt. I don’t mean physically, of course. Emotionally."
"I would think that she’d understand your culture perfectly. What other has she ever known? No, I’m afraid that it is her ignorance of our culture that is at issue here."
"The chance of… exposure?"
"It goes beyond that. She doesn’t have any idea. Any more than you."
"Idea of what?"
"She is an illegal person, born of an illegal mating. She has no right to exist, here or on any other world, and yet she does."
Suddenly, I felt as if I were standing over a bottomless abyss, about to fall.
"How can a person be illegal?"
"Our genetic laws are dictated by necessity," she said.
And launched into a story about a Protector (That was Charmin’s mother) falling in love with a Messenger (some sort of sterile male), which was illegal in itself. Then deserting her post to follow him, which was seriously illegal. Then enhancing a native male on some rogue planet so she could bear a child, which was most illegal of all. Something called the Aurean Empire had caught up with them, and she’d been killed.
Her lover must have escaped somehow and made his way here, on account of Earth being a specially protected planet that the Aureans were supposed to leave alone. He’d apparently been wounded himself; maybe he’d gone off to die after leaving the child. Or maybe he’d hoped to survive and come back to reclaim her once the coast was clear. That would explain the gold alloy mesh outfit that had powered Charmin down, so to speak, to make her true nature less obvious to the natives – although it would have other effects when she reached puberty. Even Higher Authority wasn’t sure of all the details.
I listened to all of this in silence, as if I were understanding it. I didn’t even want to understand what could kill a Velorian, or what this interstellar war was about. There was only one thing that concerned me.
"So what happens now?"
"It is already happening. An extraction team has been dispatched to Deer Meadow."
I hadn’t mentioned where Charmin was living. She already knew.
"And after that?" My voice was shaking.
"A board of assessors will determine her fate."
I didn’t like the sound of that. I didn’t want to think about what it might mean. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else.
"Excuse me a moment," I managed to get out, as if I were just heading for the men’s room." But she knew better.
"Nobody’s going to believe you, anyway," she advised me.
I had trouble finding my car key, trouble finding the ignition. I sat there in the lot for several minutes, trying to ride out the shakes. Then my cell phone rang. It was Charmin. She sounded terrified
"How could you do this to me? How could you?"
There were sounds in the background that I couldn’t identify. Then silence. I suddenly had to fling the door open and vomit onto the parking lot. There were plenty of other cars there, but it was if I were all alone. Nothing but the asphalt, man, all around me.
I knew it was useless, but after I recovered I drove to Deer Meadow as fast as I could. Somehow I avoided both a ticket and a wreck. But I couldn’t avoid the reception I got. Had the extraction team told the people there who sent them, or had they figured it out for themselves, as Charmin had?
Ingrid was sitting in front of her trailer, looking like death warmed over. But when she saw me, she came to life all right. Got up, walked right over to me, and spat in my face. That was all. She didn’t have to say anything. But what would she have called me? She liked rats.
That was just the beginning. I didn’t see it coming, but suddenly my head was smashed against the side of the trailer.
"You son of a bitch." It was Carl Rodd.
Guy must have been 75 years old, but he was beating the shit out of me. I was too stunned to resist. Maybe too ashamed. He kept at it until he was pulled off me by a county sheriff’s officer. The deputy had a beer belly, and wore both a belt and suspenders. Didn’t look like the trustworthy type, but I wasn’t complaining.
"You want to press charges?" the deputy asked.
I shook my head, wiped the blood off my nose with a napkin I had left in my pocket from some fast food place. I used part of it to plug a nostril and stop the bleeding.
"Shit," said the deputy, as he went off to talk to other residents of the Fat Trout. He was going to have trouble making sense of this in a police report.
Carl was sitting there sad-faced, talking to himself as much as anyone else.
"Beasleys tried to save her, Went after them with a tire iron, baseball bat, even their bare fists. She got away for a moment, flew up in the sky, tried to call somebody on her cell phone, don’t know who, but the others boxed her in and then they had her. Last we saw they were flying her off into the sunset. All the Beasleys had to show for it was some broken wrists. Guess they won’t be working for a while. Never saw grown men cry so hard in my life, not even when their father lost his legs from that jack giving way."
He paused a moment.
"She was so kind, even to an old fart like me. You wouldn’t believe how kind,"
Of a sudden, he was aware of me again. "You understand what you’ve done, you son of a bitch? Where do you come from, anyway? The Lodge? Are you one of them?"
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to get away. I got in my car and drove off. I hung a left on Highway 14, took the long way around through Hood River. Just in case the Beasleys were waiting for me in Stevenson.
There were already messages on my machine when I got home. Hangups. Heavy breathing. People yelling, "Rat!" It kept up like that for days. I picked up the phone one night, and some guy asked, "Ever consider suicide, Goode?"
Not that those were the only calls, Cindy left a message. Wanted to get back together. Maybe she was boring the plastic surgeon. I didn’t return the call. There was another one from Astrid, the dancer at Yoshiwara’s who’d thought I was cute. How the hell did she get my name or number? I didn’t answer that one, either. She wouldn’t think I was cute once she got to know me. I changed my number; the calls stopped, but that didn’t help much.
One night I had this nightmare. I realized later it came from TV coverage of the last days of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, back in 1989. He’d organized this big rally in front of the ornate and ugly state palace in Bucharest, only instead of cheering him like people were supposed to at a Communist rally, the crowd started chanting "Rat, rat, rat!" In the dream, it was me on the balcony and Ingrid leading the crowd.
Mike hasn’t had that much time for me lately. He’s working with Danni on Polish Wonder Stories. Seems she’s Polish herself. They actually sent me some copy by e-mail. So maybe he’s finally found his overweight soul mate. He’s also heard from Hank and Dave, who had to leave a place called Twin Peaks – Dave got in trouble there giving bad tarot readings. They were also going on about an FBI man who was still in the looney bin 13 years after exposing a local lawyer who’d raped and murdered his own daughter – seems he was the same man who killed the Banks girl at the Fat Trout.
There was a piece in the Oregonian about Astrid Anders. She really is working her way through graduate school at Yoshiwara’s. Said she didn’t feel degraded; it was just a job and she was keeping her focus on her degree and her career plans. Charmin had wanted to study mechanical engineering, and the video… that’s all it had been to her, a means to an end. She wouldn’t have been shamed by it, any more than Astrid taking it off at the club. It would even have been innocent fun to her. The Beasleys would have understood.
But I’d had to play the White Knight, ruining their lives and maybe costing hers. And I’d have done the same thing regardless of what had happened between us that night on the ridge. The only difference is how hateful the truth makes me look. Maybe things would have gone wrong for her anyway; maybe the video would have attracted Higher Authority. But then again, maybe nothing would have happened. Maybe she’d have gone to college, or gone into business with the Beasleys. Maybe she’d have lived happily ever after.
Only, thanks to me, she was torn away from her home, the only home she had ever known. Even if she is still alive, what kind of a life can she have in a world full of strangers, whose culture she knows not and which holds her in contempt? She would truly be an alien there as she had never been here; a stranger in a strange land. Charmin was as Terran as you or me, whatever her genes might say to the contrary.
She’d been happy when I met her. She’d had everything she wanted, including love. She’d made some mistakes, sure; but she was smart, she’d learned from them, figured out how to live here as a Terran with Velorian powers. Deer Meadow was just the right kind of place for her, too. It might not have looked like a paradise to me, but then Eden is in the eye of the beholder – and so is the Serpent.
No, this isn't the end of Charmin. Read about her further adventures in Sleeping Beauty
Wonder what happens to the Beasley Boys? See Deer Meadow Shuffle!