Glass and Shadow
Part one-- the set-up

There are very few things I won't do for enough money. I don't like to think of myself as a bad guy, I try to follow traffic laws, buy cookies from the Girl Scouts when I can, hell sometimes help little old ladies cross the street. But I sure as fuck ain't one of the good guys. There are certain things that I find distasteful and put off doing until I'm hungry enough. Kidnapping is one of 'em. But I got a pile of bills with increasingly unfriendly accompanying letters and an emptry fridge, and the only job I've been offered lately is kidnapping. So, instead of taking the high road, I'm meeting this guy in this smoke-filled, dark bar where people tend to mind their own business. Not my place of choice. A little too cloak-and-dagger for me, I like to meet in malls. Wear bright clothing. You wear trenchcoats and skulk around in the shadows, sooner or later someone's gonna think you're up to something. So yeah, I'm in this smoky, dark bar, full of mysterious ambience waiting on my contact, guy calls himself Avery. It's the kinda place where you can throw peanuts on the floor. Jukebox is playing some sad old blues song where a man got left by his one good woman. At precisely 7:30, our meeting time, the front door swings open. This guy is clean, you can tell he doesn't go to too many of these rundown joints. His suit isn't really black, probably what they'd call a charcoal and it fits him perfectly, like it was made for him, probably was. No pinstripes or nothing, plain and dark, but I can tell from here that it cost him a pretty penny. He's got on the old fashion kind of cufflinks with little diamonds twinkling in him. But he's not what you'd call flashy, rather he's one smooth character. He nods at me and makes his way over to my table. Sits down across from me and says in one of those movie detective voices, "Mr. Hutchence?"

I nod my head and take a swig out of my scotch and soda, "Yeah. You must be Mr. Avery."

"Not Mr. Avery, if you please. Call me Avery."

"Okay, you're the customer. Now what can I do you for, Avery?"

His voice drops all low and confidential, I try not to laugh, no one here is paying us any mind, too busy trying to get drunk off their collective asses,"My employer is aware of your work history and your formidable reputation. He is prepared to offer you a substantial amount if you should complete this task for him. I believe the offer quoted is three times your normal fee?"

Of course, if he's paying this well, it means this job ain't gonna be a cakewalk. I look Avery in the eye and tell him, "If your employer knows so much about my reputation, he should know that I hate doing this kind of thing. When you get to four times my fee, then we can start talking."

Avery does this sort of half-smile and says, "I believe I can safely authorize four times your fee. If you're interested, I have prepared a dossier with pertinent information to the task."

Like I said, I ain't a good guy, and four times my fee is more money than I can safely turn down, I try not too look to eager, already I'm afraid I'm some kind of mark for Avery's mystery boss, "I'd prefer if you'd just answer the questions first, then I'll decide to look at your dossier."

"Very well, shall we go someplace more private?"

"Hey fella, I don't know what you heard, but I don't get private without a movie and dinner first," he doesn't laugh at this, "Anywho, the questions I mean to ask ain't gonna ruffle anyone's feathers. Even if they was listening."

Avery sighs looks at his Rolex and says, "proceed."

"How old are we talking? Are there gonna be spooks? I assume with the high rate you're payin' that we're talking at least an A-class paranormal, possibly S-class."

"All of this is answered in the dossier."

"Yeah, like I said..."

"Very well. He is twelve years, four months and 17 days old currently. He has exhibited A-class manifestations and conjurations consistently, with S-class manipulations previously observed sporadically."

I nod at this, no cakewalk, "What about spooks? He got spirit attendants?"

Avery scowls, "There are three known. One is benign and negligable, the second is neutral and is potentially Magna class. The third is malevolent and most definitely Magna class."

I raise an eyebrow at this, a Magna class malevolent spook would eat most would-be necromancers alive without any trouble, but this kid's got one as an attendant. Definitely more than meets the eye here. This could prove to be interesting, and the money's good. I smile my broadest at Avery and say, "Give me the dossier, I'll take the case." He looks surprised and relieved and pulls a manila folder out of his briefcase, hands it to me. I shove it into a Von's grocery bag I brought for that purpose. Before Avery gets up and scurries away I saw, "I'll need an expense account and a way to contact you and your employer for updates."

Avery smiles, "The expenses will be taken care of. And you will not need to contact my employer. Once you have performed your task, he will contact you."

Avery walks out and I finish my scotch. I sure hope his spooky-ass employer has some sort of mystic way of contacting me once I've got the kid secured, 'cause I ain't planning on running a daycare.

part of the wordmongers' masque


Late Night at the White Castles
Or Talking with Cleesh with Shitface At The Adjacent Table

We had one of those late night cravings, Cleesh and I. You know, those ones that hit you quite late at night. Hence a late night craving. Cleesh, another peculiar friend of mine, happened to be the friend of which I was hanging out with that night - you've already met Shitface. Well you do realize that I only mean that metaphorically, don't you?

So Cleesh - that's what everybody calls him anyway (my other friends say he got that name because he says things that a lot of people had said before and I really have no idea as to what they are talking about) - he gets real hungry and suggests a place to dine at that evening - or, that morning, or... whatever.

"White Castle... it's what I crave!" he exclaimed as he curled his upper lip underwards, revealing his upper row of teeth quite well. He did this often, I never really understood why.

"Some sliders sound good, my man," I replied. "I was going to suggest another game of two-man solitaire here, but I am quite hungry myself." I never really understood why exactly most people were so selfish and never let anybody else play solitaire with them. But I do consider myself of a more generous nature than most amongst the homosnapians.

Once we were at the big white burger palace and had our food we noticed that Shitface was there already. When we sat down at our table, near his, he was busily using his drink straw to snort one of his fries.

"The fry is too big for that straw, Shitface," I said. I am always willing to help out my fellow Man with my keen knowledge of the Laws of Psychics, especially Men that I consider my friend.

Shitface, undaunted by my naysaying, continued his quest to suck the piece of fried potato through the small plastic tube usually used for soft drink delivery.

"He's shooting for the moon," Cleesh said in his deep, slightly raspy voice. He sounded like one of those movie announcer guys and looked like one of those scary gym teachers almost all of us have had at one point or another. He just had this intensity with everything he said, from his cold blue-eyed gaze to his rigid, frowning mouth, that makes people with weaker emotional constitutions to start shrieking like a little Catholic School Girl.

Then he ate a fry like it had killed his dog.

"No, he's trying to suck a fry through a straw," I corrected him, not exactly sure as to what he was getting at.

Cleesh just ignored my pointing out his glaring misdiscrepency and took a bite of one of his cheeseburgers. Then he said: "He's grasping at straws."

I was about to respond to that, but...

"Ferret farts!," Shitface suddenly yelled, startling everybody else in the dining lobby besides me. I was used to Shitface's insightful outbursts by that time. Actually, Cleesh didn't appear to be jarred, either. Perhaps he, like me, was thinking about the remark and how profoundly it pointed out that gas emissions from small rodents could be contributing to global warming.

I asked Cleesh if this was true and expressed my deep desire for somebody to pass a law against global warming.

"Keep your fingers crossed," Cleesh said slowly, each word lurching out of his mouth like every word was more important than the one that had preceeded it.

I looked over at Shitface. He was squeezing a slider in his left fist and grinning, fascinated by the orange and grey goo that was bleeding from between his fingers.

"He has very unusual eating habits," I remarked.

"A man's gotta eat!" Cleesh exclaimed.

"Yeesss," I said slowly and carefully, wondering if there was some deeper meaning to that otherwise obvious statement.

As I devoured one of my steaming, delectable, oniony cheeseburgers, I looked over again at Shitface to see if he had solved whatever scientific puzzle he had in mind as he studied how the burger was squishing between his clenched fingers. He had already moved onto something else, though: flinging the bits of liquefied slider at the nearest window.

"Shit-starved chicken fuckers!" Shitface exclaimed. "How d'ya like my burger now?!"

"He is one fry short of a Happy Meal," Cleesh said before a long sip of his 21-ounce Coca-Cola.

"We are not at McDonald's," I said, again finding myself in the awkward position of having to correct a man I had otherwise enormous respect for.

Cleesh just glared at me, then proceeded to chew on a burger like it had had violent sexual intercourse with his sister.

"I'm givin' it all I can, captain!" Shitface yelled with great consternation on his face. "I think it's gonna blow!" His right hand was under the table doing something I could not see. He was trying to imitate that character from that space show, it sounded like, that McScotty guy. I wondered if that had anything to do with what his right hand was busily doing. I was not sure, though; I rarely watch television or motion pictures. I have always contended that those have great potential to rot away your intellectables, like what bees do to wood.

Shitface suddenly seemed greatly satisfied by something, the way he grinned and laid back into his chair. It was the sliders, of course. What else could it be? Ah, those delicious, steaming, cheesy, meaty culinary masterpieces.

"I absolutely love these, don't you Cleesh?" I asked before making love to another cheeseburger.

"I could eat them until the cows come home," Cleesh responded.

"I did not know that you were a dairy farmer," I said, quite surprised that he had made a foray into that industry. I had only ever known him as an auto parts store clerk.

"I've got a hankerin' for a hunk of cheese, YAHOO!!" Shitface yelled. Ah, apparently they had forgotten the cheese on one or more of his burgers. The lack of a work ethic among young persons of fast food employ is simply atrocious.

As a matter of fact, whilst Cleesh and I were gathering up our trash, ready to depart about five minutes later, several of those young inept workers were trying to coax Shitface down from his table. Apparently they had taken some offense to his dancing half naked on the tabletop and waving his genitals at newly arriving customers. It is a very sad state of affairs in the world of art appreciation where a simple interpretive dance about the beauty of the human reproduction could be seen as a violation of dining policies.

"Don't they know art when they see it?" I asked Cleesh as I tossed my empty soda container into the waste disposal bin.

"Me and you, we see eye to eye," Cleesh said. "But, look at the bright side: the grass is always greener on the other side."

I was stunned at those statements. I almost asked him if he was a gardner, too, but suddenly I interpreted what he had meant. Maybe society was going to turn a corner, discover a world where the grass was greener, where things will be better.

I left that White Castles with renewed hope for humanity as a whole. I looked back on Shitface, who was busy urinating on the angry restaurant employees, and gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up.

The grass may be greener, indeed.

For Wordmongers' Masque

Shine a Light

It's hot. And humid. One of those days when your hair never dries after you get out of the shower. And the girls give up trying to straighten their hair.

As I walk I try to clear my mind. But I can't. It's like a fog. So dense that I can actually feel it. Impenetrable. I want to think. And to think clearly. To see things as they actually are. But there's no hope.

I've lost all hope. I've tried it before. Tried to break through. Maybe it works for a day. Probably less. It ends in me realizing that I'm just faking it.

I'll pretend to be all right. Pretend to not be as screwed up as I am. One more day.

That seems to be all I have. One more day.

Have you ever been so scared that you know whatever you do will be the cause of your death? Mess up one more time. Afraid to do anything. After all, I deserve it, don't I?

Maybe I'll get through this day. Maybe I'll stop breathing before I take my next step.

I make my way to where I'm going. There's a hole in my sock. That's not all. I forget where I'm going. It's all habit anymore.

I'm fake. I guess. That's the only possibility left. Because I'm certainly not real. I remember as a child I would swing on my swing-set in my backyard for hours each day. Whistling. Singing. Making up songs all day in the sun. I can remember the grass being so green that it almost hurt to look at it. But even then I remember some of my song-making sessions quickly ending because I was scared that God would be mad at me for making up such useless songs.

Now life is habit. I do everything I can to perpetuate this empty existence. This routine that I'm in. This thing I call my life is killing me. It's driving me mad, at the least. It will be the cause of my end. The end of me.

If it ended, and I didn't. I could live. But I'm scared; too scared to break this routine. What if I can't outlive it? I'm not scared of death. But I am scared of my death.

I promised Laura I'd go watch the fireworks with her tonight. That's where I'm suppose to be going. Now walking is just another means to a pointless end. I don't feel like going. I don't have the patience for it. But I never feel like anything. So I might as well go.

And I'd like to enjoy myself. I'd like to feel anything anymore.

So I walk down the street. There's no side walks. This isn't exactly the newest part of town. Down her street. Up the stairs to her apartment. I don't think I know anyone who lives on the first floor of apartments. Someone must. Knock on her door. I'm not exactly presentable. But good enough. Girls take forever to come to the door.

She says that she's hungry. She wants to go eat. We do have two or three hours to waste before the fireworks begin.

"I don't have any money," I say as she walks out of the room.

I guess she's thinking. I don't know. She's taking forever to answer. She went to her bedroom. Or the bathroom. I guess she isn't done getting ready.


"No. I'm poor," I pause. "Remember?"

"You're not poor," she yells from wherever she is.

"I don't have any money," I yell back. "What do you call that?"

It's not that I never have any money. Sometimes I do. I have a job. But the work comes sporadically. I just don't have any money right now.

"Then how do you plan on getting in to see the fireworks?" she asks as she hobbles back in to the room. She's still trying to put a boot on while walking. Seems unsafe. Unlaced and unkempt. She's ready to go.

"I didn't think about that." I really haven't. It hasn't occurred to me that we would have to pay to watch the fireworks.

"I'll pay, then," she says.

"I'll pay you back."

"No. You paid last time, anyways."

When was that? I don't remember paying last time. "No, I didn't."

"Come on. Where do you want to go?"

"To eat?"

Get in her car. I need a car. Well, not really. But it would make things easier. Start the car. If I could just get one without having to pay for it. On the way to eat. Who knows where she's going.

"Where are we going?"

"To eat."

She thinks that she's funny. "Where?" The sun blinds me as we turn. I go to pull down the visor. It doesn't move. It has never moved. But I never remember. I almost always end up trying.

"Where do you want to go?" she says.

"I don't know. You're driving." I grab the visor. "...and buying." I hold it up to the ceiling of the car. It moves a little bit. Just enough to be right in your face. If you hold it in place and hit it real hard next to the hinge, it will stay up. So I do.

"Don't mess with that," she says.

"I'm not. Well, I'm done with it."

"How does Jose's sound?" she asks.

"Expensive." She always suggests Mexican food. I should have seen that coming.

"But good?" she asks with a sudden upbeat tone.

"Yeah, that sounds great," I say, realizing that I'm probably depressing the hell out of her with the way that I'm acting. I sit up in my seat a little. Try to be a little more engaged. "Sorry."

I don't know why I act this way. Why I am this way. Always so depressed. Looking at my life you would think that I should be pretty happy. Most people would be. I think about it sometimes. Maybe I'm just a negative person. I don't know. But I don't want to give it up. It's like this depression is what keeps me alive. It seems like there should be more. That my emptiness is the closest thing I have to hope. Hope that there is something.

"For what?" like she can't tell. I wish I knew her thoughts.

"For being so out of it." That's a nice way to put it. How about I just keep it inside. Don't tell the truth. This seems to be what I always do. Don't talk to anyone else about it. I tell myself that I don't want to depress her, too.

"Where are you then?"

I like being with people. It makes me forget to think about all the things I think about all too much. So why do I always avoid being with people? I feel guilty, I think. For being distracted. Like constantly feeling horrible is my penitence for being so messed up. Like if I don't do it. If I stop thinking about these thing. That will be my downfall. What if enjoying myself is wrong? Just a distraction from the truth. This thought. It gets so confusing. I never get past this thought.

"Huh?" I ask. I heard her. I just don't know what she meant. Or I don't know how to answer her.

"Nevermind," she smiles.

Thank you. Wordmongers' Masque.

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Someone's looking out for me / someone's got it in for me

On Friday evening, my host father was in a particularly bad mood due to a stressful week. He took it out on the kids. With my host mother away shopping during dinner, he proceeded to start them both crying within ten minutes of each other.

In particular he launched into a long monologue at the daughter about how she was a terrible child. He asked "What if an atomic bomb dropped right now, and this was the last you saw of me? How would that feel?" when she wouldn't come to the dinner table because she was too embarrassed by her crying. Then he told her she wasn't a member of the household. This has a strong negative meaning in Japanese, so it's difficult to translate. I can at least tell you that I was rather aghast to hear it from him.

I realize that Japanese parents rear their children very differently from American parents and the Japanese still turn out more or less sane. Nonetheless, there seem to be polar extremes of exercising no discipline against the child whatsoever, which my host parents opt for most of the time, and traumatizing the child with extremely harsh and critical language, which happens whenever the children cross a magic line of misbehavior I honestly can't identify.

My strong inclination toward empathy is a blessing most of the time, but that dinner was the worst experience I've had in Japan. It was nearly unbearable to sit there hearing the two children crying uncontrollably, driving themselves to hiccups with the failing effort to keep their sobbing in check, while the father took his frustration out on them. As soon as I could politely escape, I left the house. It took two hours of walking around and around the neighborhood before I didn't feel like throwing myself off a bridge anymore.

I realize that will probably sound exaggerated to those reading this who aren't as easily affected by the emotions of others, but experiences such as those border on physical pain for me. I can't handle them. Given a choice between having to cut off a toe and reliving that evening, the toe would go.

No, I'm not joking.

The next day I didn't feel much better, so I left the house as quickly as I could and took to exploring the town by bike. I stopped near the railway station first to visit an internet cafe. I wrote some people I hadn't kept contact with long messages and felt a little less isolated.

A phone call to my friend Gabriel did even more to stabilize me. A grandmother with a perpetually repulsed grimace waited outside the phonebooth the whole time, occasionally poking her head in and saying things like, "Nagaku narimasu ne," but, frankly, I could see other open payphones within short walking distance and she was rather rude in trying to hurry me (I took my sweet time regardless), so she could go very honorably fuck herself.

I'm accomidating, but I'm not going to bow and scrape for a stranger's every whim. When I exited the payphone, I gave her a shit-eating grin and a terribly insincere, "omataseshite sumimasen."

I had lunch at an excellent Italian restaurant, where, perhaps as penance for my bout of American borishness earlier, I did my utmost to be polite. After lunch, I biked until I reached the cape along the shore of the Hakodate peninsula that I don't see often.

Following this path brought me to a shrine entrance up a steep slope where I decided to park my bike. The shrine was a typical Shinto monument, the sort that are scattered throughout the neighborhoods of this city, but a little muddy path that led from the shrine grounds into an alley made this shrine the gateway to something rather incredible. I stumbled on a labyrinthine Buddhist cemetary at the end of the alleyway, built into terraces up the mountainside.

The cemetary was shrouded with very old trees and packed tight with stone monuments carved in complex calligraphery. Weathered statues of buddhas, unlit candles, and flowers decorated many of the graves, as well as empty cups of sake left for the dead's appreciation.

It was isolated from the rest of the city by the natural landscape and its location on the mountain. Light leaked unevenly through the canopy of leaves. Crows hopped between monoliths and occasionally broke the silence with their caws. I climbed halfway up the mountain following the footpaths to the places of the dead.

The further I pressed along the moutainside toward the ocean, the closer the trees grew and the thicker the air became with solemnity. I'm not a spiritual person, but I don't think the spirits needed my say-so to make this little bit of Hakodate their own. I was intruding, but I didn't feel particularly unwelcome. Simply foreign. Not as an American, rather as a member of the living. I kept my thoughts quiet, so as not to disturb them. I took pictures apologetically.

Eventually, the graveyard gave way to a tiny paved rode that lead down to Cape Tachimachi. This was originally a home of the Ainu native people named "Yoko-ushi," which a sign translated as, "The place where we stand and wait to catch fish." 'Yoko' is the Ainu word for standing on the look out for prey and 'ushi' is the word for waiting, so the Japanese translated this literally into 'Tachimachi.' The cape was severe, chill, and regal. I sat and watched the ocean for a while, to give my mind time to settle itself back into reality.

When I tried to tell my host father how beautiful it had been, later, he shook his head and looked frightened. He said he'd never go to that cape. People commit suicide there, apparently, and ghost hands reach from the place where they die in pictures taken of it. There were no ghost hands in my picture, but I didn't laugh about his beliefs this time. He wasn't pretending to be scared.

On the way back, I passed through the graveyard and came upon the shrine again. I stopped before the gates of the altar, pressed my hands together as you do in Christian prayer, bowed my head, and then clapped twice as I've seen done in Shinto prayer. Why this particular impulse seized me I don't know for sure, but it felt appropriate to pay respect for the vivid memories the place had etched. My materialist faith is holding up rather poorly under the weight of Japan's mythic tradition, I confess. I never have made a very good skeptic.

I felt drained as I biked back home, physically by the climb and mentally by the mysticism, but my mood had much improved. Instead of looking angry, sullen, and suspicious as they had in the morning, strangers on the street looked relaxed and sanguine. I passed a teacher and a guest lecturer from HIF walking along the waterfront and waved hello cheerfully.

Only a few minutes later, I passed the extremely unusual sight of a group of Latinos biking the city street. The last of them in the row threw an enormous grin my way and yelled, "Hello, friend!" in heavily accented English. I yelled, "hey" back and coasted along at an easy pace, wrapped in contentment, until a few blocks away from home.

Then I was hit by a car.

The strange thing is, I knew the car was going to hit me. It was a black minivan stopped waiting to make a left turn. I saw the driver glance in my direction and we made eye contact. I guess he just didn't actually see me. There was a white car coming in the opposite direction I was traveling, giving me about two feet of space between where it was going to be and the bumper of the black minivan.

Despite the eye contact, I knew very specifically that the minivan was going to shoot forward and that I would have to throw my body weight to the right so that I didn't fly leftward and fall in the path of the white car's tires. All these thoughts occurred with slow and methodical clarity. The mental monologue might have gone something like this: "I'm having such a nice time here. Gee, that's a pretty garden. And here comes an intersection. Oh dear, that's unfortunate, it seems I'm going to be hit by a car."

So I wasn't actually surprised, then, until several seconds after the grate of the minivan got inappropriately intimate with my right side. I threw the bike between me and the white car, smashed into the pavement shoulder-first, curled up, and came tumbling to a stop six or seven feet away. After staring at the overcast sky for a few seconds, wondering if I'd be able to move, I stood up, battered but not injured in any permanent manner. The fear and panic kicked in only after the driver had already jumped out of the car and was asking me in a strained voice if I was alright.

The driver was a guy about my age. He was using plain form and throwing apologies in between every phrase he finished. "Are you okay? I'm so sorry. Do you need to go to the hospital? I'm really, really sorry. Is anything... I'm sorry... is anything broken?" I repeated "daijoubu desu" like a sort of mantra as he picked my bike up and held it. I stared at him, then grabbed the handlebars from him. There was some resistance, but not enough that I couldn't jerk the bike away.

I said "daijoubu desu," one more time before I rode off, the bicycle rather rickety and squeeking with complaint beneath me, while the pedestrians and the driver stared after. I didn't get his name or his license number. I was too shocked to even think of it.

I was about two blocks away before I realized that, if I hadn't known the car was going to hit me and if I hadn't thrown my weight as I had, I would've been tossed in the path of the white car's tires. It had probably been going thirty miles per hour.

Incidentally, it was about that time various parts of my body decided it was okay to tell me their troubles.

Right now, my left wrist is killing me, there's a road rash up my right arm, a bruise down my right side, another bruise on my left shoulder, my back is very unhappy, and I'm walking with a limp. But otherwise I'm in working order.

Here are three feasible conclusions:

1) I did the prayer wrong, so I got hit by a car.
2) I did the prayer right, so I avoided severe injury.
3) I shouldn't trust Hakodate drivers, so from now on I bike behind the stopped cars.

Select the conclusion you feel to be appropriate. More than one conclusion is acceptable.

As for me, instead of drawing conclusions, I think I'm going to read some Honey and Clover, then take a nap.

Author's note: this was written about two months ago. Izu's now back in the United States and fully healed.

Life and Death

"You're single, right?"

Yes. Yes I am. I nod. The stranger's southern drawl melts through me like butter on hot cornbread. He slowly lowers the side of his suit jacket, again concealing the firearm at his hip.

"That's good. That's real good. You just stay that way." I flush as he winks at me. When he turns to walk toward the congregation waiting at the front of the chapel, I do something I've never done before. I heave a sigh of relief that I haven't gotten an engagement ring yet. For the first time, I am glad. My eyelids flutter uncontrollably. In my mild state of panic, I can't but marvel at how some things just work out.

Just work out?! This man has a gun holstered and he means to use it! At a wedding!! Are you out of your mind, girl?! Do something!

But I can't. It's not my wedding and really, hadn't I already hoped the bride's day would be ruined? I know I won't come to harm, won't be gunned down because I connected with the stranger. I told him I was single and that was a lie but he believed me.

His voice. Oh, God, his voice and I am helpless against it. That amused but serious, authoritative but serene, molasses-on-a-warm-day accent had my knees weak and my thighs wet. I would follow him, sex incarnate, regardless the havoc he was about to wreak. He was murder and delicious. I will follow you, I swear. To the end of the world.

I try to avoid my boyfriend's eyes. In the chaos of arriving guests, we've been separated. It seems decades since we last spoke, since this gunslinger captured me, heart, mind, and soul. If my boyfriend finds me, comes to me, the stranger will know. I rush off to a corner at the back of the room. Take a seat behind a large, distracting group, hold my service leaflet to my face like a mask. Sit down with your friends. Just sit down with them. You can find me later.

It's obvious he's panning the room for me, but the stranger is looking around, too, and so I can't let him know where I am. Instead I arch in my seat, suddenly aware of the oppressive heat in the chapel. The music begins. Under the silk canopy and even silkier violins, the guests take their seats. What was a cacophony becomes a murmur. The stranger meanders down the side aisle, a panther about to gain release from an invisible cage.

The bride enters, practically shimmering with happiness. There is a brief crash and then, in a momentary fit of prophecy, she freezes halfway up the aisle and begins to cry. "No. Please, God, no," she whimpers.

The stranger reveals his secret.

"Ladies and Gentlemen! I do apologize, but if I could turn your attention away from our lovely bride for just one moment--"

The guns explode, bullets tearing through the stomachs of a middle aged couple nearby. A scream, a panic, a corporal tidal wave as hundreds of bystanders try to flee simultaneously. They fail.

In my confusion I look back to see five other bachelors with guns exposed. The crowd retreats to their former seats. The stranger laughs.

"Aww, don't go nowhere! We're just gettin' warmed up!" That grin again. It sang a juxtaposition of madness and clarity. "Who here wants to celebrate love and romance?! Why not call marriage what it is?! DEATH! The death of this young couple before you and no one says a word, let alone screams one! And here I shoot two people--already dead inside--and everybody gets up to run. Who among you is alive?! Who among you is SINGLE?!"

Nervous hands creep into the air. And me? My legs cross, one foot dangling, swinging to and fro easily. A sultry smirk slides on to my face. I catch the stranger's eyes. Wink. I'm not playing at single anymore. I'm yours. God help me. Yours.

He answers my thoughts with a dozen shots, raining bullets and blood over the once pristine chapel. His brethren echo with shots of their own. The hall transforms into a morgue, eerily quiet save the bride's sobs. "No, please, no. I loved him," she mewls. The stranger approaches.

"You're alive, m'dear." He sounds like a knight who's slain a dragon, this man who has killed her near-husband, her family, her dreams. She breaks down as her tears cascade over her rumpled dress. Chest heaving, this ruined bride collapses on the floor over his foot. And yet I am drawn to him, in a way I cannot explain. I glide over the injured and dying to sidle close to him. I lap at his throat. I bite his ear. I breathe in his heady scent and his bloodlust becomes mine own.

"Whereas I..." he sighs, trailing off into a kiss deeper than I've ever known. My heart skips a beat. "Oh, mercy me, but I think my life may be nearly over..."

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