Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fifty-Ninth Beginning: That's the Ticket

No demon walking, lumbering, or flying down the tunnel would have noticed the little red imp as it crouched, rocking in its nook.  For the tunnel was dark, barely lit by the sullen miasmas of hell, and the waste vents, set into one side, dripped a hissing lividity that caused the air to shimmer and quake.  This camouflaged the movements of the imp and covered its chittering.

Aimless was the chittering of the nameless, naked imp as it curled and rocked around its prize.  It had been very daring.  It planned to be more daring still.  In this moment, it gathered its nerve and congratulated itself on its cleverness.  Relaxing somewhat, it held its prize before it, still hunched and rocking, and crooned to it with the voice of a howler monkey.

The Bloodwishstone was its master's stone and more magic than the imp had ever held.  It could feel the magic seeping into its skinny arms.  The imp's master, a demon of some note by the name of Gargak, neither knew nor cared that this particular imp had a second master, a lesser being barely named with a single syllable:  Sul. Imps crawled through hell, ubiquitous as lice.  Demons wasted little thought on them.

As understanding from the stone seeped into it, the imp stilled and quieted.  It began to know that it was a very lucky imp.  The stone would cooperate.  It began to understand, too, why Gargak did not use the stone.  It smiled.  Sul had little, yet, to distinguish itself from other demons, but he had one thing that the imp could use.  He had formed an inflex, a point of shadow transfer to the mortal realms.  Nothing could actually pass through an inflex, but anything held within it cast a shadow of its essence on the other side.

The Bloodwishstone's shadow would do interesting things among the mortal sheep.  Perhaps interesting enough to gain one small imp a name.  Just now other imps were needed, as colleagues and witnesses.  The red imp left its nook, clutching the stone and its cleverness.
It was difficult, but Laura managed to remember to lock the door when she left the house.  Although it ran counter to her nature, her philosophy, and her usual needs, it was a necessary action while house-sitting.  Laura might have nothing worth either stealing or locking up, but the house, only temporarily her place of shelter, owned a great deal and expected to keep it.  Laura was willing to help it, when she could remember.  It was a nice house.

Laura had a split in her sneakers and a garbage bag in her jeans pocket.  The second was due to the first.  The sneakers would have to be replaced soon, and today that meant can-scrounging.  Laura knew where to go first.

In the center of the fancy development in which the house lived, there was a golf course.  Through the course ran a stream, which fed a series of duck ponds.  Following the stream in either direction out of the development would take her to either undeveloped stream beds or blocky, cement culverts, both used by the development teens for beer drinking.  It was can heaven.  New sneakers were at most a month away, probably half that.
The red imp and its cohorts sidled cautiously through Sul's passages, ready to jump and cower in fawning hopefulness at the least sign of any demon.  It was unlikely, though.  Sul was sleeping, exhausted from haunting dreams in the inflex.  It had successfully caused a medium amount of mischief, some of which had the potential to expand into greater mischief unaided.  It was the way of hell that other demons knew this, and that, in deference, they were unlikely to disturb its rest.  The imps picked lightly through the chilly, dripping phosphorescence of Sul's passages, as nervous and abrupt as flies.

They stopped, hovering, uncertain, when they discovered Sul sleeping beside the inflex.  Soft clicks, squeaks, and strangled moans seeped from them, as sign of their worry, leaking out despite all need for caution.

The red imp, alone, was silent and still.  The power of the Bloodwishstone steadied and led it.  It padded directly to the eye- and mind-bending here-and-notness of the inflex and thrust the stone into it.  The other imps quieted as the stone floated in the center of the inflex, and stared, rapt, as images from the mortal world began to bloom.  By the magic of the stone, understanding shone through the unfolding sight.
Laura cashed the check from the recycling center at the 7-11.  The town was a bedroom community on the interstate.  The development was on one side of the overpass and the rest of the town was mostly ignored on the other.  On the development side were grocery stores, restaurants, and one lone pizzeria, all catering to the upscale and keeping up the landscaping.  A row of professional offices buffered the development from even this well washed mercantilism.

The town on the other side was centered, by chance, about a mile north of the freeway.  It was its fringes, therefore, that touched the divide, placing the bits of the city that the citizens shunted aside closest to the development.  Laura had, therefore, only had to cross the overpass to reach the recycling and scrap yard.  The remainder of her trip, past light industry and a few
hog pens, had been burdened only with the weight of the check.

Normally the 7-11 would not cash third party checks.  But the recycling center was known to be good for it and Laura was well known, if not quite an employee.  She did small, temporary jobs - cleaning or subbing or hauling - that were paid under the table by half of the small stores in town.  So six dollars and thirty-three cents changed hands without even a request to see a driver's license.  Laura balanced the money in her palm, jingling the coins slightly.  

"Five dollars is enough of a take for today.  What do you think?  Should I get a coke or a lottery ticket?"

The turbaned man behind the counter smiled.  "You know you want the ticket.  It's always the ticket with you."  He reached and tore one off of the behind the counter display, not waiting for her answer.  It was the right one, he knew, the one with the worst odds but the best prizes.

Laura chuckled, enjoying his understanding.  She held out her dollar.  "You know me too well.  Nothing I have is ever as wonderful as the next thing that might happen."

"So scratch it and see if you win."

Laura took the quarter from her loot and scratched.  Behind her a junior high aged boy juggled and armload of candy, chips, ice cream, and soda meaningfully, but with no success in catching the clerk's eye.  Both he and Laura watched as the markings on the card were revealed.

$50,000 - - $50 - - WISH.  Laura stopped.  Wish?  Usually it said CHANCE or GO or TV.  Wish?  Laura and the clerk exchanged puzzled glances and shrugs.  The boy pushed in beside her an started unloading onto the counter.

"I've never seen that," said the clerk.  Laura displaced herself down the counter a bit, to make room, and the clerk displaced with her.  The boy brought out money, which hung in the air as Laura continued scratching.

WISH - - $1,000 - - WISH.

"Hey, I won a wish!  That's too cool for words.  What's the prize?"

"I have no idea.  I will check the rules."

"Hey!"  The boy waved his money as the clerk calmly rooted under the counter for a pamphlet.  The boy visibly controlled himself as the clerk read the pamphlet thoroughly.  

"I will phone their number, here.  There is no mention of a wish."  The clerk ducked under the counter and exited the store to use the pay phone."

"Shit.  Doesn't he want my money?"

Laura shrugged absently and looked at the ticket.  "I get a wish," she said.  I wish I had a coke."
Down in hell, a handful of imps sucked in a hiss of breath.  So much potential, for very much potential for harm, and it was starting so poorly.  The Bloodwishstone had manifested as the full, traditional wish triad in the mortal world.  Their hearts had raced at the sight of it, sure of grand success.  And now, so weak a wish!  How much harm could even the Bloodwishstone squeeze from such a weak wish?
There you are, you thieving little . . . !"  The boy beside Laura looked vaguely ill for just a second, then his face flared with resentment.

"What do you mean 'thieving', witch?  You ran off without leaving me anything to eat."

"I ran off to work, you spiteful little piece of garbage, and I left you a casserole in the refrigerator."

"You left garbage in the refrigerator . . . "
"And don't call me a witch, you thief.  Now give me my money."

Things began to deteriorate from there, with violence looming closer, until the clerk leaned in at the door.  "Do not worry, ma'am.  I call the police and they come arrest the thief and give you your money."

Both unhappy customers began to yell their opinions as to the desirability of this action, but the clerk just smiled and nodded and turned back to the phone, shop door closing behind him automatically.

As the objections dwindled to a couple of muttered imprecations, Laura picked the ice cream bars out of the pile and popped them back into the freezer before they could melt.

"He's talking to someone else right now," she said.  "If you're gone before he finishes, he'll have no reason to make another call."

The mother held out her hand, an ultimatum.  The boy threw the money on the counter and stomped off, trailing obscenities.   The woman echoed his obscenities dully as she hung there for a moment, tired and defeated.  Then, with a second wind, she grabbed the money from the counter, jammed it into her pocket, and headed after him.

"I guess it could have been the floor," she muttered as she strode toward round two.

Laura began re-shelving snacks.  The clerk re-entered.  "They say it is a fraud.  There is no such ticket.  I say I tear it from the roll myself, see you scratch.  They say slight of hand, a switch.  I argue.  They argue.  Phooey.  I will get you a new ticket."

"No.  I like this one.  Do you think it's one wish or thr . . ." Laura stopped, her eyes wide.  "Look!"

The clerk read the ticket:

$50,000 - - $50 - - $50

WISH - - $1,000 - - WISH

"It must have been three," he finally said.  "I do not like this."

"But did I make a wish?  I don't remember it."  Laura frowned, but worry was foreign to her and it passed quickly.  "Oh, I put his stuff away.  Except for the coke.  Fountain drinks don't go back very well."

The clerk slid it toward her, an obvious offer.  Laura smiled and drank.  

"Thanks.  You don't know how good this feels."

"You should be careful.  Wishes can be bad things."

"Like in the Monkey's Paw?"

"Monkey's Paw?"

"A story about a magic monkey's paw that granted wishes.  An old couple used it to wish for money and it came immediately - but it was from their son's life insurance.

"Ah, so their son died from the wish.  Yes, that is what I mean.  Wishes can be bad."

"Their next wish was worse.  They wished him alive."

"That is bad?"

"They forgot to wish him healed . . . and he had been buried for three days."


"The last wish sent him back to the grave.  I wonder why it's always three wishes."

The clerk shrugged.

"There's the story of the fisherman and his wife.  They got three wishes too."

"I have heard that one - sausages, sausages on the nose, sausages off the nose."  The clerk smiled, relaxing.  "That one is not so bad.  The lesson is to make small, careful wishes and to watch your tongue."

"And to make the wishes soon, before you forget and wish for something odd.  That will be hard.  I like things that haven't happened yet.  Well, thanks for cashing the check and for the ticket and for the coke.  I needed a caffeine fix.  Bye."

"Be careful."

"I will."
The imps all but vibrated in place.  This was hell for them.  Sul's presence required quiet.  But the ambiguity of the Bloodwishstone's working frayed their nerves and drove them to chatter.  Possibilities span from the first wish.  Rancor danced with reconciliation.  Mayhem brushed by generosity.  The mother and son shared both miserable circumstances and a basic love.  And the wish had been neither theirs nor directly about them.  Therefore the stone could not continue its influence.  There was no telling how things would end.

Beside the inflex, Sul stirred.  The imps froze, then sank down and seeped toward the walls.  Al except one.  Unable to move from his handiwork, the red imp slid between Sul and the flickering images and turned his back on the sleeping demon to gaze into his magic's heart.  It saw, as the others did not, the evil the stone had gathered, had infused into the inflex.  If it could not be siphoned through, what would happen to it?
The split in Laura's sneaker widened on the way back to the house.  When she got there, there was a letter from her sister.  Although purporting to be a civil, helpful letter, it was, instead, an admonishing letter that often reached far past politeness to touch the sarcasm it plainly felt entitled to.

Laura sighed and folded the letter back into its envelope, re-containing it.  For extra protection, she laid it on a table in the entry, near the door, and put the wish ticket on top of it.  The phrase 'bread on the waters' echoed in her head.

'Bread on the waters' was another protection, Laura's personal talisman against the proper animosity of her sister, Cheryl.  'Bread on the waters,' 'lilies of the field' - these phrases, plucked by deliberate study from the bible, could send Cheryl into a spitting, howling rage, when properly applied.  Not that Cheryl yelled.  No, the biting, scattershot attack these words could provoke would be delivered in a strangled whisper, a show of righteous anger held back by propriety.  

How dare Laura quote scripture?  It wasn't Laura who had turned to religion.  She had been the one who had done that in a selfless attempt to guide her wayward sister's ways.  She had been the one who had joined a proper church, run the cleaning committee, held bake sales.  She was the one who called relatives and kept the family Facebook page active, offering her judgment and advice and her help when needed.

How dare Laura quote scripture when she had done none of these things.  How dare she talk about 'obvious new testament themes' as if all a person had to do was read a fool book!  As if Cheryl had the leisure to read, busy as she was.  And if a certain person was responsible enough to have a cell phone like an adult, she wouldn't have to waste time writing letters.

"Bread on the waters," Laura said it out loud. Then she looked down at her shoe.  "Well, you won't last the week at this rate.  Should I wish for new shoes?  No.  Then I might find a dead body with sneakers just my size.

Let's see.  I could wish for cans.  After cleaning up it will take them awhile to build back up.  But I don't want them to build up forever.  How to cover the bases?

Okay, ticket, here it goes.  I want seven days with just as many cans as today, exactly where I collected them today, and after that I want no cans there.  I want it to stay clean after that."

Laura turned the ticket over.  It read:

$50,000 - - $50 - - $50

$1,000 - - $1,000 - - WISH

"Cool,"  Laura said, putting the ticket back on the letter.  She smiled as she turned toward the kitchen.
The red imp hugged itself to contain its rising elation as understanding of the images filled it.  The wish had centered on a location - two locations.  The stone's effect could be focused there, could work unseen to apply the wish and its curse to the best effect.  

The stone hummed as influence after influence formed in the inflex, formed and cast shadows outward.  Drunkenness, argument, rape, defiance, vandalism, and death simmered, occurred, in the air before it.  So many cans to come, each splattered with the blood that would be used to prevent the coming of further cans after the stone had worked its magic for seven glorious days.

Against the walls, the other imps stirred and chittered, impressed into incaution, or so the red imp thought until a hand grabbed his neck and thrust him into the inflex.  Another hand grabbed the stone from the air and brought it crashing into the imp's head.  Sul had awakened.
In a back bedroom of the house, Laura prepared cartoons for mailing.  Three were for fantasy magazines and one was for a mystery magazine.  Laura had a list.  The cartoons would be sent away in sequence down the list until accepted.  Lately, they were all accepted eventually.

This was Laura's health insurance and retirement plan.  Every bit of her cartoon and story money went into savings and mutual funds.  Food came from small gardens and odd jobs.  Clothes came from recycling and from garage sale resales.  Beyond food, clothes, and security, what else did she need?  A house?

Laura was well-known to those who needed house-sitting, in-house baby-sitting, and in-house cleaning.  She also had friends with couches or soft rugs.  And she had learned that begging to use computers after hours could get her locked into offices overnight, where begging for couch space wouldn't.  Laura trusted the world in general too deeply to feel homeless.

Life would be grand if only Cheryl would back off.  Lately all her other relatives were either avoiding her or regaling her with Cheryl's advice or both.  It was sad.  It was obvious to Laura that they'd been bullied into it, smothered with Cheryl's talk until, gasping, they'd taken in some of it as their own:  the cost of a breath of air.

Laura went back to the entry.  She picked up the ticket with one hand and the letter with the other.  She looked at both and considered.  Then she shook her head and began to set them down.  
Floating in both the inflex and the inherent ironies of hell, the red imp span limply and recognized for the first time his name:  Bot.  Enough trouble, finally, to earn a name and most of the trouble seemed to be his.  He would have smiled bitterly if he'd had that much control, but his skull was smashed, leaving him alive, oh yes, in hell, eternally alive, but helpless.

Intimate, now, with the inflex, the imp knew the full danger of his actions.  If the evil the Bloodwishstone had gathered was not shunted through into mortality, it would rebound, would backlash viciously.  The mischief from the coke was not enough.  The mischief from the cans was yet to come.  All depended on the third wish.  The third wish could lessen the danger from the second or it could open the floodgates of hell.

Yet either way, what would happen to him?  What would happen to one small, trapped, paralyzed imp?

Sul was also aware of the buildup of evil but, unlike the imp, he could send his influence through the inflex.  The imp flet him push, an insistent imperative for an immediate, substantial wish, forget the risk.
Laura still held the ticket, thinking.  She loved her sister, even admired her in some ways.  She just couldn't stand her.  And she really didn't understand what drove the woman.  It seemed like that was the key.  If they only understood each other, things would be different.

The letter landed in the wastebasket.  "Okay, ticket.  Listen closely.  I don't want to change my sister and I don't want to change me.  I want us to stay just the way we are.  But within that constraint, I wish we understood each other."

It was the biggest wish that Laura could think of - changing Cheryl's mind.  A reverent moment or two passed before Laura turned the ticket over.

$50,000 - - $50 - - $50

$1,000 - - $1,000 - - $50

"Oh," she said, surprised.  "I won."
Back in Sul's den, even the lichen felt the wrongness coil to unleash.  Bot was all but smothered with it.  Bot alone felt the tendrils of change unwind and reach even as the evil cramped itself tighter in the hanging air.  He was not surprised when Gargak burst, roaring, into the chamber.

Imps fled as demons fought and the canker of the Bloodwishstone festered toward eruption.  Bot saw only a swath of the floor as he hung, turning slowly.  He would be annihilated, he was sure, reduced to a pained awareness caught in the inflex.  And if Gargak won, as he probably would, and decided to unravel his opponent's resource?  What then?

The inflex erupted, flaring outward to join the battle of Sul and Gargak, to joing Sul, to join Gargak, to join much else beyond them.  Bot felt pain, great pain, but he knew it wasn't his.  The pain belonged to Sul, to Gargak, to the inflex, to every living and unliving thing in the chamber and the passages just beyond.  He felt the pain of these things as they melted and ran together while he floated safely in the eye of the wishstorm.
Laura bought her own coke this time at the 7-11.  She handed the money and the ticket to the clerk.  "What do you think of that?"

"I think you have won.  Is this the same ticket?"

"Yep.  I think I figured out what the first wish was.  It was the coke.  And that boy got into trouble."

"That is fine.  The mother brought him by to apologize.  They paid for the coke.  It seems they were up all night yelling and crying and hugging.  The boy will get a paper route to earn snack money.  It will keep him busy after school until his mother comes home.  It is good."


"You made other wishes?  What were they?"

"I wished I'd find as many cans as yesterday for seven days and then that there would be no more cans in those places."

"Cans for money, yes?"


The clerk shrugged, not quite understanding.

"It felt like it was going to happen, too.  I was sure of it.  Then I made another wish.  I wished that my sister and I could understand each other."

"What happened?"

"Well, it seemed for a second like it might happen.  Then I was suddenly sick all over the floor.  I spent the next four hours groveling in the bathroom and then poof! the sickness was gone."

The clerk began to laugh.  "Ah, you asked for too much.  I know your sister.  She's been here twice threatening to turn me in to the IRS for giving you money with no taxes.  What you asked for was too much for the poor ticket and it died."

"My sister threatened what?:

"Do not worry.  I asked my bother if she could do it and he said she could, but it would be stupid.  On your end, the little bit you get for the little bit you do, it would be like trying to tax a lemonade stand.  On our end, you're not an employee, you're an independent contractor, like the boy will be when he delivers newspapers.

My brother says let her notify whoever she wants."

"Oh, good," Laura smiled and shook her head.  "You're right, I think.  I asked for too much and it broke.  Oh, well.  It was a nice idea while it lasted.  Tell me, is this ticket good?"

"Let me call in the side codes and see."
Bot shied and danced around the now-living chamber.  The lives of Sul and Gargak and two of the fleeing imps, not to mention the lichen and ooze, had been woven into the inflex, extending its power and the power of the chamber.  Bot himself was healed.  Not just healed but winged as well and larger than before.  He shone with healthy, red vigor.

The paradox of the wish had been too much.  Understanding was a change.  It was not possible to change a person and leave them unchanged.  The backlash of the aborted wish had destroyed the shadow cast through the inflex.  The Bloodwishstone was not unhappy, though.  It radiated contentment and promises from the floor by the chamber entrance.

Bot knew, now, that the stone was happiest when causing grief in hell, which he had helped it to do.  Now he had a name and here was the stone in a powerful new chamber with no master.  It was a deadly trap and he knew it.  He tensed himself to spring, hoping he had enough strength to fly over the stone and out of the chamber.  He did not believe the odds favored him.  The stone's promises were so very sweet.  Bot hoped that the human would suffer as much as he did.
It was such a nice day in the development that Laura decided to go jogging in her new shoes.  "I should have wished for a winning ticket at the start," she thought.  

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