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  • Anna Hedges

HOUNDSTOOTHE 1.5 - Funerals and Funnel Cake - PART ONE

Houndstoothe 1.5 – Funerals and Funnel Cake PART ONE

This episode is brought to you by my patrons, Adam, Amanda, Andy, Felicia, Kimberly, Sam, and Vazgen.

The part of the unnamed window cat is once again played by our neighbor’s cat, whose name I do not know but who is always welcome in our yard.

Also, Skyler, so much of Houndstoothe is for you, but Pat’s pencil obsession is for you especially. Thank you for letting me borrow your Faulker Parzival Grail pencils.


HOUNDSTOOTHE, MI

At six in the morning, the day of Joe Darby’s funeral, a wave of cold air swept through Houndstoothe. But it was more than a mere wicked wind, heralding ghosts and ghouls; this wave rippled through the town, vibrating windowpanes, ruffling curtains, and flickering the electricity. It was cold; just like the coldest winter wind cuts right through the warmest sweater, this wind cut right through the spirit of the town.


THE BLAIRE HOUSE

It began as a low, deep hum in William Blaire’s closet, then lightened to a crisp chime, a sound to match the temperature.

Bill woke to the sound of his notebook falling off his nightstand. When the hum reached a crescendo of potential energy, building in his palms, stomach, and the roof of his mouth, he sat up. His skin prickled. His mind swam with disappearing dreams, and he swung his legs out of bed, supercharged with good intentions.

I can do this, he thought. The new book, handling Rosemary, living here, I can do all of it. I can do more.

Agnes, already about the house, leaned against her kitchen counter, sipping coffee. She was about to go water her plants, with which she had a tumultuous relationship. June had kept a thriving garden in all seasons, and Agnes figured it was only proper for the “town witch” to have a green thumb.

But waking up before sunrise to water the plants was horrible. Every day she considered abandoning her little green monsters, as she lay in bed. And no matter what she did, the lavender seeds would not grow. They wouldn’t even sprout. But suddenly, she felt different. She poured a fresh cup of coffee and walked out into the dewy gray morning, surveying her vining pumpkins, the little conifer trees by the fence, the marigolds on the back porch. A thought occurred to her – too simple to be anything but her own, and too obvious not to be important.

If you’re patient, it will grow.

She stood taller. She watered the plants and resolved to leave the rest of the coffee pot for Bill and go to Lincoln’s. If you’re patient, it will grow.

Rosemary didn’t wake, not yet. But her dreams changed.

She saw the lightning, but it was more than just lightning. It always had been. She could see a dark presence writing between the bolts, an anti-electricity, something that sucked light away – not just the light of science and the physical world, but the light of every plane. Planes above, and below, and in-between.

She turned in a slow circle, looking for Joe, but she couldn’t find him. When she saw the lightning again, she felt the snowflakes on her face, and the ice-flecked wind.

Just like the first dream, but without him.

Rosemary held out her arms, her hands, and planted her feet firmly in the snow.

Everyone has had dreams where they find themselves in the middle and know what happens next.

Like watching a familiar film.

Rosemary recognized that she was asleep. And she recognized what happened next.

This could go one of two ways.

The lightning came to her.

Whichever of those two ways it went, Rosemary knew she wouldn’t flinch. She’d stand her ground.

THE DARBY HOUSE

Russell had already been awake for half an hour and when the wave hit his house, he was shuffling through the kitchen, searching for coffee. Clark kept putting everything in the wrong places.

He found the coffee behind the cinnamon and pulled out both. A dusting of cinnamon powder flew up in his face, and that’s when the wave hit.

What if I could save him?

Russell stopped – he felt he should move slowly, like he was being watched. He measured out the coffee carefully, letting the wave determine his thoughts.

All he’d thought about the past few days was what he would’ve done if he’d been there. If he could’ve stopped Joe from dying. He thought about falling from the air that night in Kadath Park, and about the pain in his ribs.

For a moment, the knowledge of Joe’s death and the accompanying grief left his mind. Weight slipped off his shoulders and he relaxed his back for the first time in days.

What if I did save him?

And, after that instant of grand and glorious purpose, each citizen in Houndstoothe threw up.

Bill, on his way to the kitchen, halted in front of Rosemary’s room and upchucked a blob of golden, sparkly goo. He stared at it for a moment, running his tongue over his teeth.

“Funnel cake?” he whispered.

Agnes, sitting in her garden, suddenly leaned over the arm of her lawn chair, opened her mouth, and watched in horror as a wave of thick, glittering mucus fountained from her mouth into the grass. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand and stared at it. Margaritas.

Rosemary rolled over in bed, still half-asleep, and threw up on the floor. She peered sleepily at the blob of blue, metallic slump on the floor, then collapsed face first into her pillow. Surely it was only a dream. A dream that made her think of mint chocolate chip milkshakes.

Just as Russell was measuring the grounds and placing the coffee filter, he felt something traveling up his esophagus. Panicked, he leaned over the sink, then changed his mind and held his hand over bulging cheeks as he wrestled the trash can out of the cabinet. As soon as he was roughly leaning over it, he spat out a blob of vaguely green, shimmering gunk. His mouth burned. It tasted like jalapeno poppers.

Russell stared at the goo for a moment, then put the trash can back under the sink. “That was weird,” he whispered.

Lincoln watched as his early morning customers spit up sparkling sick in their breakfasts, then caught up with them.

He felt his soul bubbling over.

Deep desires for memories returned, promises kept, and a ride on horseback reverberated through his mind. He closed his eyes for a moment, turning away from the diner front instinctively, as if turning away from anything could save him from the dread. He felt a tickle in his throat, as if he’d swallowed his coffee wrong, and spat out his own sparkly sludge. It tasted of smoke and blood and barbecue sauce. It tasted like memories. Like Texas.

It sizzled on the countertop, warping the marble to a pale, copper color.

Lincoln stared at it for a moment.

“What the fu-“

THE DARBY HOUSE: Russell

Russell’s days and nights leading up to the funeral had passed in a blur of dogged exhaustion. He didn’t sleep well. Zombie-Joe starred in all of his dreams, relentless in his pursuit of Russell’s attention and peace. Russell found himself wide awake each night, almost always between midnight and three o’clock. One night he’d slipped in and out of consciousness every hour on the hour, right after dreaming that there was someone besides Joe in the room with him.

The next morning, after throwing up in the kitchen, he didn’t feel like he’d slept at all, but he vaguely remembered Zombie-Joe guiding him through different realities. Sort of like A Christmas Carol. A few scenes from the dream crystalized in his mind.

Zombie-Joe led Russell to the forest behind the library and stood, lifeless, as Russell searched for his glasses in the ferns. The corpse swayed on its feet. Russell’s stomach pitched at the sight of it. Zombie-Joe only seemed to animate when Russell wasn’t doing everything he could to somehow save his twin.

When Russell failed to find the glasses, Zombie-Joe took him to a future Christmas at Grandma’s, where a cheerless dining room table sat. Half empty Chinese take-out containers littered the tabletop. Usually it had a red table-runner and candles that smelled like cocoa and allspice, and a huge turkey stuff with cranberry brie filling.

“You gave up on me, Russell,” Zombie-Joe rasped. “You gave up on me.”

A Christmas Carol had been hidden in the stack of books under Joe’s bed, and the past few nights when Russell couldn’t sleep, he read his brother’s books. Russell had always liked reading, but he didn’t read like Joe. Joe read like each book held a sentient consciousness; he read it out loud to himself until Russell asked him to be quiet, and then he started penciling the margins, anchoring his thoughts to the written word with graphite and determination. Joe read books like he was in love.

Russell had always thought it was a little silly, but he missed it. He’d always taken it for granted, and now it was gone. All of his nightmares were characterized by Zombie-Joe telling Russell he gave up too soon.

Russell couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about Joe’s death. The first thing he always thought of was murder. Did he want Joe to have been murdered? Russell leaned over his knees, guilt bending his spine. Maybe. If Joe were murdered, there would be someone to blame, someone guilty. Someone besides Russell.

But murder just didn’t make sense. Joe was struck by lightning. With that, Russell’s only suspect was God, and he couldn’t very well do anything about it if God had murdered his brother.

Russell shook his head and paced around his room.

He was hungry, and probably dehydrated. But his stomach churned – he couldn’t eat. He’d been queasy all morning, even before the vomit-incident. And it’d taken several tries to get his contacts in from his fingers shaking so much. He’d been so lost in his thoughts that he refilled his mug four times.

He felt crazy.

I’m crazy. This is crazy.

The past few days, he’d found a surprising source of comfort in the window cat, who continued to visit every day. Russell kept the window open and the bedroom door closed, and he moved all the tuna to his room so he could feed her without visiting the kitchen.

Russell realized with a jolt that he had not seen the body, and then that he was missing his first day of school. He slipped out of his room and went down the hall to the bathroom. He hadn’t seen the window cat since yesterday morning, and he worried about her absence. He’d started counting on her appearances throughout the day. Somehow, they brought him back to the present moment without devastating him.

After he’d stopped by the bathroom and brushed his teeth, he went to the kitchen to make some more coffee.

THE BLAIRE HOUSE: Rosemary

The dark thing stepped out into the world, tentative at first. Like a cat entering a room. But it had no reason to be shy. It had done this before. Many times.

It struck, lightning-quick, razor-sharp, like the fangs of a snake. And it didn’t let go.

Rosemary’s dream fled her consciousness as she stuttered toward wakefulness – she saw fleeting images, of trees, neon lights, glowing blue hieroglyphs, a pair of glasses spinning in anti-gravity, with the cosmos behind them, and she heard the words, You’re not the right Lincoln.

By the time she opened her eyes, it was all gone, as if waking up were a drain and her dream was water.

She could hear Bill whistling – she hated when he whistled. He could only whistle the tune from the Disney Robin Hood, the song that the rooster whistled all through the movie. Now it would be suck in her head all day.

She sat up suddenly. It was her first day of high school.

She glanced at her phone, panic a red, angry pulse in her body.

Okay. Lots of time.

A dark, gaseous energy pulsed in Rosemary’s gut, the same oily feeling she always had when she was dreading something, truly dreading it. She always got it when she lied to Bill or Kat when she was little. When she’d cheated on tests. Or now, after that strange dream that she couldn’t even remember. Just a nightmare.

Rosemary climbed out of bed and grabbed a cardigan, then went to the kitchen. Bill was standing at the stove, whistling the infernal Disney song, and flipping pancakes arduously. He was still in his pajama bottoms.

“You made pancakes?” Rosemary asked.

Bill looked up and broke into a grin. He hadn’t shaved since they arrived in Houndstoothe, and all the gray in his beard was showing. He looked like a train-hopping hobo, but not the cool kind – the kind that had alcohol spills all over a colorless coat.

“I made pancakes,” he said, puffing his chest out.

“Coffee?”

His face fell. “Agnes made some but I drank it all.”

Rosemary snorted. “I’ll make more.”

Bill nudged her shoulder as she walked past. “What are you wearing?”

Rosemary glanced down at the White Snake t-shirt. “Oh. Aunt Agnes gave this to me our first night here. I’ve been sleeping in it.”

Agnes appeared around the corner.

“Aggie,” Bill said. “A White Snake Reunion Tour?”

“Yes. It was a great concert,” Agnes snapped. “Is there coffee? You know the rule, Bill.”

“I’ve been making pancakes,” Bill said, evenly. “I haven’t had time.”

“The person who drinks the last cup makes the next pot! That’s the rule!”

“I got it,” Rosemary said.

She glanced between Bill and her aunt and measured out enough coffee for a full pot, then drifted over to the pile of pancakes, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She expected them to be burnt on the outside and raw in the middle, but they were beautiful, golden brown halos of buttery cake batter. They looked like they could be used in an IHOP commercial.

“When did you get good at pancakes?” Rosemary asked, picking one up.

“I’ve always been good at pancakes,” Bill said.

“You’ve never made me pancakes before,” Rosemary said.

“That’s because you’d never get up early enough. But this is the first day of high school! Special occasion! Yay!”

“Yay,” Rosemary said dryly, heading for her bedroom. She wondered how early Bill had to get up to make so many pancakes with just one good arm.

“Hey! You need to eat more than one!”

“I have to get dressed, Dad!”

Rosemary went to the bathroom and locked the door behind her. First day of school. She took a shower, brushed her teeth, put on the outfit she’d picked out the night before, and laid out her small collection of makeup to see if she could do anything with it.

She dug through it, looking for a lip gloss and an eye shadow that would go together but wouldn’t be too flashy. She didn’t really wear makeup that often, and when she didn’t put in much effort. She finally settled on a nude lip gloss, a light brown eyeshadow, and a tiny bit of mascara.

Rosemary had packed her backpack the night before, filled it with her notebooks, pens, schoolbooks, and a paperback to read at lunch. Just in case she didn’t make any friends.

Rosemary put on her shoes and went back to the kitchen, backpack on her shoulder.

Bill and Agnes were arguing about furniture.

“What if I just use the library as my office?”

“You can’t monopolize the library,” Agnes said, throwing her hands up.

Bill sighed and leaned on his good elbow as Rosemary walked in. “Hey! Do you want some bacon? Agnes made it.”

“Um, sure,” Rosemary said. “I’m going to get coffee first, though…”

“I can make you some eggs if you want,” Agnes offered.

“I’m not super hungry,” Rosemary said. Her hand shook as she poured the coffee.

“Do you need money for lunch?” Bill asked.

“I got it from your wallet last night,” Rosemary said.

Bill blinked. “You stole your own lunch money?”

“That’s not funny,” Agnes told him.

“But – “

She cut him off. “Do you want a ride, Rosemary?”

“I’ll just walk,” Rosemary said, grabbing a piece of bacon and wrapping a pancake around it.

“Are you sure?” Bill asked.

“Yep, I already know where it is,” Rosemary said.

“Okay – well, have a great first day,” Bill said. He held out his good arm.

Rosemary gave him a quick hug.

“Maybe we can get burgers and milkshakes tonight! To celebrate your first day!” Bill called, as she slipped out.

“Whatever!” Rosemary called. “Sounds good!”

“Love you!” Bill called, following her into the hall – but she’d already shut the door.

She sighed and opened it again. “Love you Dad – dork.”

She shut the door again before he could say anything else and stepped off the porch. Just like Bilbo, she thought.

Bill:

Bill stared for a moment at the door and leaned against the wall, rubbing his beard. She was off on a big adventure, stepping off the porch.

Just like Bilbo.

He swelled with pride for a moment and scratched his beard vigorously. That makes me Gandalf.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror on his way back to the kitchen. He was starting to look a little like Gandalf – not all gray yet, but a little too much.

“I need to shave,” he announced, coming back into the kitchen.

“I’m on my way out too,” Agnes said, grabbing her purse. “I’m going to Lincoln’s.”

“Why don’t you marry him already?” Bill asked.

He expected a retort, but instead she just lifted an eyebrow and smiled.

Rosemary:

Rosemary listened to music on her phone as she walked – thankfully she still had her downloaded playlists – and noted her new town. Every porch was beautiful, filled with flowers or house plants, every lawn green. She saw lots of birds, too. Blue jays, robins, cardinals, little splashes of color flitting through the air.

Kat had always told Rosemary on first days of school to find one thing she liked – or even two, or three things.

“They’re there, I promise,” Katherine said. “But you have to look.”

Rosemary remembered that the tradition began when she was five, and every year since. It was something beautiful and small between her and Kat, and at the end of the day, she reported her favorite things back, as if she’d found them. Pirate treasure in the endless sea of monotony and knowledge and fear.

She passed Lincoln’s Diner on her way and found herself wondering if the other boy would be in there – Russell. For a brief, crazy moment, she considered going inside and getting another cup of coffee to spy on him, just in case he was there, but no – today wasn’t about her crazy dreams or her “jedi powers” or anything except it being the first day of school in a new place.

As she approached the school, she took a deep breath. She started looking for things to like. The school colors were green and silver – she saw the Fightin’ Timber Wolf on the side of the building. She was surprised to see how fresh and clean the paint looked, like it’d been recently touched up. The wolf looked fierce, showing her fangs.

Rosemary stared up at the mural for a moment. The paint shimmered in the early morning light, and the eyes blazed pink when the sun hit them.

Why does it seem like a she?

There was nothing cartoonishly feminine about the wolf, no bedroom eyelashes, no bow pinned on her ear, no demure expression in her wild eyes. She was a creature of fury and iron will.

There’s one, Rosemary thought.

Her last school mascot had been a hornet, and the school colors were a garish yellow and black. This was an improvement.



THE DARBY HOUSE: Russell

Russell couldn’t find a tie.

He remembered his suit being in great shape, but when he put it on, the jacket sleeves were too short. He must’ve grown or something. He figured that if he wore a tie, he could get away with leaving the jacket at home.

A soft knock broke his concentration. Russell looked up – Lillian was leaning in the door, already dressed in a black pencil skirt and a dark silver blouse.

“Hey honey,” she said. Her eyes were red, but they looked clear.

“Hey,” Russell said, after a moment. He opened another drawer and rummaged through it. “Just looking for a tie.”

“You don’t have to wear a tie.”

“I grew out of my jacket.”

Lillian frowned and came all the way into the room. “Really?”

“Yeah, the sleeves are too short,” Russell said.

Lillian picked the jacket up and looked over the sleeves. “Oh,” she muttered.

“What?” Russell asked, shoving aside a jumble of socks.

“I think that’s Joe’s suit. I came in here on Saturday to get it for him to wear, and… I think I may have grabbed yours.”

Russell blinked and looked down at the drawer. A pile of stained, grimy socks that didn’t match were halfway in the drawer, half on the floor. Russell gathered them up and dumped them on his bed. He’d match them later.

“Well, I’ll find a tie,” he said at last.

“I’m sure Clark has one if you can’t find one,” Lillian said, absently. She headed for the door but paused and turned around. “Russell, I want to make sure you know this – Joe loved you. You were his best friend. He adored you, and – you were only nine minutes apart, but you still took care of him. Nine minutes the oldest.”

“This is his suit from Grandma’s birthday,” Russell said, looking down at the pants. I remember now. He sighed and walked over to Lillian and wrapped his arms around her. “I love you, Mom,” he whispered.

Lillian rubbed his back and leaned her cheek on his shoulder. When she stood back, a new wave of tears streaked her cheeks with makeup. “You’re so tall,” she said. “When did that happen?”

Russell snorted and cleared his throat. “Not sure,” he murmured.

“It’ll be okay if you don’t wear a tie,” Lillian said. “Joe wouldn’t care.” She patted Russell’s shoulder and walked out into the hall.

“I care,” Russell sighed.

He spent the next half hour digging through the dresser and closet and throwing all of the messily folded clothes out of his bed to re-fold and organize later.

Russell looked up from his laptop as Joe walked in. He had a jacket slung over his arm in a heap, and he was tugging uncomfortably at a tie.

“Why are you all dressed up?”

“I had that interview today,” Joe said, still tugging at the tie.

“At the library? You wore a suit for that?”

“Yeah,” Joe said. “I really want to work there.” He winced and tossed the coat on the end of his bed. “The sleeves are too short though. I didn’t really notice until I got there.”

Russell snorted. “You reorganize books all the time. You’re probably overqualified. I’m sure that crusty old guy doesn’t care if your sleeves were a little short.”

“He’s not that old,” Joe said. “And library sciences are a whole thing. You know you can’t be like a librarian proper without a degree at some places?”

“Hmm,” Russell said, staring at his screen.

“A lot goes into the job,” Joe went on.

Russell typed on IM as loudly as he could, and said – “Sure – how did the interview go? You work there now?”

It worked. Joe sat down on his bed and finally wrestled the tie off, then tossed it to the side.

“I think it went okay. Miss Blaire said she’d butter Grey up for me.”

“That’s great,” Russell said, absently. “You basically work there anyways.”

“That’s what Grey said,” Joe said, beaming.

Russell dropped to his knees and lifted the blanket hanging off Joe’s bed. There was the tie – still in a half-Windsor, all crumpled and dusty. He took it out and dusted it off, then slipped it on over his head and tightened it. It wasn’t a great knot. It was crooked, and there was dust stuck in all the little crevices. He reached up to untie it, thinking if it was flat he could dust it off better, maybe spot clean it, and then make a better knot, but as his fingers brushed the crumpled satin, he stopped. It was Joe’s knot. Russell left it alone.





HOUNDSTOOTHE HIGH: Rosemary

The halls smelled like soap and a chemically, artificial pine, and pencils. Rosemary visited admissions and got a copy of her schedule and locker number.

Her first class didn’t start for another thirty minutes, but Rosemary headed that way anyway. She liked empty classrooms.

There was a boy sitting in there. Rosemary started when she saw him, then backed out and checked the room number. This is the right place…

She took a deep breath and entered the room again. The boy looked up. He looked too young to be there – a year or two younger than Rosemary, at least. He sniffled when she came in and hurriedly scrubbed his face and wiped his nose and eyes on his sleeve. Rosemary realized he’d been crying. He was short, his hair was shaggy and unkempt. A splattering of freckles decorated his cheeks and nose.

“Are you here for physics?” he asked, clearing his throat.

“Oh… yes, I think so,” Rosemary said. She checked her schedule, then looked up.

The boy wiggled in his seat, staring up at the ceiling and blinking rapidly. “I’m Pat,” he said.

“… Rosemary.”

Pat nodded and sniffed again. “You’re the new kid, huh?” he asked. “Just moved here?”

Rosemary made her way to a desk a few seats away but on the same row as him.

“Um. Yes.” Rosemary unzipped her backpack and pulled out a fresh notebook, a highlighter, a pencil, and a pen. She started digging around, looking for her pencil sharpener.

“Where’d you move from?” Pat asked.

Rosemary glanced up.

Pat was watching her, with his hands clasped firmly in front of him. He had braces, a digital watch, and a pencil with a square eraser behind his ear.

“Chicago,” Rosemary said, after a moment.

Chicago,” Pat said. He looked away, eyes distant. “Cool.

Rosemary lifted the corner of her mouth. “Um… are you okay?”

Pat crossed his arms tightly over his chest and looked over at her. His eyes were wet again. “I have allergies,” he said. He looked down at his hand. “I’m allergic to first days of school. And my friends dying.”

Rosemary lifted the corner of her mouth. Joe. It had to be Joe.

“Sorry,” she whispered. Not knowing what else to say, she returned to digging through her backpack.

“What are you looking for?” Pat asked.

“A pencil sharpener.”

Immediately, the boy held out a small silver pencil sharpener, with two different-sized holes built in. Rosemary stared at it for a minute and then took it and sharpened her pencil, sweeping the curls of wood and graphite into her backpack. “Thanks,” she said.

“Oh, sure. What kind of pencil is that?”

“Um…” Rosemary held it up and peered at it. “Dunno. Just a number two.”

“Can I see?” Pat asked.

Rosemary shrugged and leaned over to hand it and the pencil sharpener to him. He peered at it for a moment.

“Ticonderogas are pretty good,” he said, after a moment. He handed the pencil back. “I like Palomino Blackwings. My Dad gets them for me.” He pulled the pencil from behind his ear and held it up.

“…cool,” Rosemary said.

Pat gave her pencil back and then dug around in his bag for a moment, emerging with another square-eraser pencil. He offered it to Rosemary. “I have lots,” he said. “I just got these really rare Faulkner Parzival Grail pencils. But I’m saving those.” He paused and held the pencil a little closer to Rosemary’s hand. “Just try it out. I think you’ll like it.”

Rosemary lifted the corner of her mouth and took it. “Thanks,” she said.

“Yeah, no problem,” Pat said. He squirmed in his seat. “You know I’m younger than the rest of you? I got to skip a grade.”

Ah, Rosemary thought.

“Do you like physics?”

Rosemary cleared her throat. “You have a lot to say,” she said.

“I’m talking too much,” Pat said. He blushed and his freckles disappeared into the redness.

Rosemary smiled and looked down at her notebook. “It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t know anyone here, so… it’s nice to meet someone.”

Pat grinned and his blush subsided. “Yeah,” he said. “Cool.”


LINCOLN’S DINER: Lincoln

The morning rush was usually Lincoln’s favorite part of mornings, but he couldn’t stop worrying about the vomit-incident, and he hadn’t had a free moment to try and fix his counter-top. Or react to his vomit burning a new color into it. Plus he had to close early to get ready for Joe Darby’s wake.

The bell rang over the door, and before Lincoln could check to see who it was, he set down a pot of coffee and it shattered. The coffee spilled off the back-bar onto his shoes and apron.

“Damned cheap decanters,” he spat.

“Seven minutes bad luck,” Agnes said.

Lincoln whirled and saw her slipping behind the counter.

“You can’t be back here,” he said, automatically. “Health code.”

“Oh, I can too,” Agnes said. She handed him a towel and stood on her tiptoes to pull down the coffee filters.

“What are you doing?” Lincoln asked, bending and mopping up the coffee.

“Helping you till your seven minutes are over.”

Lincoln flinched and stuck his thumb in his mouth – there were shards of glass all over the floor, too. “You’re gonna have to be here for a while. It’s years. Seven years bad luck. Isn’t it just with mirrors?”

“I don’t think so,” Agnes said. She grabbed the other decanter and refilled Mr. Hofstead’s coffee, the only customer sitting at the bar that morning, despite the rush hour.

Lincoln started gathering the glass shards. “You’re thinking of seven minutes in heaven,” he continued. “Seven minutes in heaven, seven years bad luck.”

“Oh,” Agnes said. “Should we go to the stock room, then? I think you’ve got five minutes left.”

Lincoln’s gaze shot up. Agnes smile gleamed wickedly as she took a plate from the kitchen window.

“Where’s the Breakfast Blues Plate going?” she asked.

Lincoln stared.

Agnes shrugged and glanced at the ticket. “Table H,” she said, and slipped out from behind the bar.

Lincoln cut another finger and cursed under his breath.

He managed to drop all the big pieces of glass into the trash can and stood up, wrapping his apron around his hand so the customers wouldn’t see his bleeding fingers.

Agnes slid by him, brushing his elbow with her back.

“Agnes,” Lincoln said.

She turned. “What?”

“What are you doing?” he repeated?”

Agnes picked up another towel and started wiping down the front counter. “I’m being patient,” she said.

Lincoln snorted.

Agnes snapped the towel in his direction. “I’m trying to be patient,” she amended. “I’m helping. I’m here.” She glanced at him. “For coffee.” She looked down at his apron-wrapped hand. “Take care of that,” she said. “I can refill coffee for a few minutes.”

Lincoln hesitated, then nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks.”

He headed for the kitchen door, gripping his wrapped hand tightly.

“What are you smiling about?” Mr. Hofstead called after him.


HOUNDSTOOTHE FUNERAL HOME: Russell

The Houndstoothe Funeral Home was surrounded by dark green bushes with little red berries on them. It reminded Russell of Christmas. He felt sick without Joe.

As they approached the door, Russell’s throat tightened and he started tugging on Joe’s shitty half-Windsor. There were a few people milling around in the funeral home, wearing nice suits and dresses. Russell saw relatives and let them hug him and kiss his cheeks; all of his aunts were crying, and Grandma held him for such a long time that Russell almost started hyperventilating.

Everyone looked at him with such pity – or was it kindness? Russell couldn’t tell the difference. His world was shattered, and everyone knew it.

He walked across the room toward the casket. He couldn’t breathe. Everything around him suddenly seemed muted – color, voices, even feelings.

Looking at Joe’s body was like looking at a wax figure of Russell’s own body. Staring at his twin was a lot like glimpsing his future, the ghost of Christmases yet to come.

He was too still. In life, Joe never stopped moving – even when he slept, he tossed and turned, and when he was sitting, he tapped pens, fingers, or bounced his leg. In death, Joe’s body didn’t even seem like a body. It seemed like a big, gruesome doll. Or a Halloween decoration.

Russell stood with his hands in his pockets. This didn’t look like his brother – his hair wouldn’t be combed that neatly, and he didn’t have his glasses.

Russell winced – he had an absurd thought that Joe wouldn’t be able to see in the afterlife without his glasses. If there was such a thing as the afterlife. Joe had gone through a phase of intense obsession with Egyptology, and he was always talking about how pharaohs had lots of possessions buried with them – they believed they could take it with them. At the very least, Joe should’ve had his glasses.

Russell heard a series of gasps behind him and turned to see the window cat trotting through the funeral home – she was headed straight for Russell and the casket.

Everyone standing around lunged for the cat, but she was too fast, and just as the funeral director reached for her, she jumped up onto the casket. Russell saw Clark running over and quickly scooped the cat up into his arms.

“I forgot to feed you this morning,” he whispered.

“Why is there a cat in here?” Clark asked, no one in particular.

“It’s okay,” Russell muttered, half to the cat, half to Clark.

“Will you get that thing outside?” Clark asked, tersely.

“She just misses him. This is Joe’s cat,” Russell mumbled.

“He didn’t have a cat,” Lillian said.

Russell ignored her and headed for the door. He could hear his grandma talking sternly to the funeral director, something about being more careful about leaving doors closed.

“We’re starting soon, Russell,” Clark called.

“I’ll be right back,” Russell said, wearily. He glanced down at the window cat in his arms. Her golden eyes were calm, and kind, somehow. He felt the pinprick of her claws through his shirt, but she didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get down.

Russell took her outside the funeral home and sat down on a bench amidst the dark green bushes. He had every intention of putting her down, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoo her away.

“I’m sorry I forgot to feed you,” he whispered. “I just… this is just…” he shook his head and loosened his grip to wipe his face.

Window Cat jumped down to the ground and began licking her paw, nonchalant. Russell took a deep breath and noticed some movement out the corner of his eye.

He looked up, expecting to see some old lady walking over to offer condolences, but it wasn’t.

It was Joe.

LINCOLN’S DINER: Lincoln

The diner had seen many wakes, but it was Lincoln Cooger’s first one since he’d taken up the mantle.

There were notes in every corner of the office from Lincolns past, but he didn’t look at them. Instinctively, he knew to put the stools in the storage room so he could use the bar as a buffet, and he pushed tables together so people could eat in groups.

The Knitting Rebellion had already dropped off about a million dishes since yesterday; part of their function in the town was potlucking. Lincoln’s freezers and fridges were bursting at the seams with casseroles, stews, desserts, and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls. Evelyn had brought over a huge cherry tart. Lincoln could not figure out how she’d fit it into her oven – it was the widest cookie sheet he’d ever seen, and he had some pretty big ones in his kitchen.

Even Chester Marshall had dropped off a big pot of macaroni and cheese. He was well-known as the t own’s grumpiest old man, despite his tender young age of 28.

Around noon, Lincoln started heating up what he could fit in his ovens and grabbed some ancient hot plates from the storage room. He started a new batch of coffee, partly so he could have a cup in peace before the Darby family and the other mourners started to arrive.

Agnes had promised to stop by and… help.

He was just getting to his cup of coffee when a mechanical roar resounded through the town square. Lincoln paused to watch as a Triumph Bonneville sped around the corner, the engine purring like a giant, angry cat. It came to a stop outside. The Rider wore a long black coat, and even from inside the diner, Lincoln could see the red laces on his motorcycle boots. The Rider shut off the engine and walked to the door.

Lincoln grabbed the cream and poured it into his coffee, till he saw it blossoming from the bottom of the mug, then capped the jug and took a sip.

The Rider looked around the dining room, nodding. He had on goggles, which he pushed to the top of his head. He pulled a red pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.

“No smoking in here,” Lincoln said. He sipped his coffee. “We’re closed, anyway. Death in the town. Hosting the wake.”

The Rider smirked. “Not Death exactly.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Do you know you’ve got a rip in your town, Lincoln?”

Lincoln sipped his coffee again.

The Rider smiled with too-white teeth. He had a thick Texan accent, almost too textbook to be authentic. He shook a cigarette from his pack and put the whole thing in his mouth.

“Oh, don’t worry. ‘S bubblegum.” Every time he spoke, the mirth in his voice got thicker, like he was about to start laughing.

Lincoln searched his mind for a memory or a hint that would tell him who this person was, but nothing came.

“A rip, huh?”

“Yeah,” The Rider chuckled. “If you don’t patch that up, someone’s bound to fall in. Well – someone already has, but you knew that.”

Lincoln nodded slowly and chewed his lip. “Where exactly is this… rip?”

The Rider’s grin widened, showcasing deep dimples. He touched his goggles as if he were tipping a hat. “Behind the library,” he said. “Just thought you oughta know. It ain’t getting’ any smaller.”

“Sure,” Lincoln said. “Want a coffee for the road?”

“Maybe next time. Take care now.”

The Rider turned and let himself out through the door, the bell ringing over him. He mounted the motorcycle, started the engine, and drove away in another roar.

Lincoln nodded to himself and finished his coffee. “Shit.”

TO BE CONTINUED.

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